My wife and I have always emphasized education to our children, and in particular I extolled STEM for several reasons. The first of which is that, growing up during the early space age, I became fascinated with rockets and jet propulsion. Secondly, as an awkward introverted son of immigrants who was raised in a part of America unaccustomed to non-locals, I found my social circle quite small. Thus, between an interest in things and how they worked and a reticence towards personal interaction, I focused on learning mathematics and science in high school, and then turned to engineering in college. Later, I was employed in the aerospace field which offered a plethora of opportunities to analyze or test various components and systems. A subsequent foray into patent law broadened my technical understanding well beyond engineering from classical physics into chemistry and quantum effects.
Since working in the technical arena supported our family, it seemed reasonable to advocate for it as a default pursuit in college. For while a STEM degree wouldn’t necessarily provide a financial cornucopia, it offered a low probability of penury in a functional industrial economy. More importantly, the STEM field presented an insight into a world of facts – immutable to fanatical appeals by the self-righteous woke make-believers. For while I personally enjoy reading literature on history and archaeology, and to a lesser degree religion and politics, I deliberately relegated liberal arts (humanities and social studies) to the background of my education. Thus it never entered my mind to consider a career in such fields, and as such we discouraged our children from such options as a prospective career path.
The Current Tension between STEM and the Liberal Arts
All of this leads me to a recent article in Quillette entitled “Liberal Arts are the Future” by The Everyman’s senior editor Auguste Meyrat, which extolls the benefits of their study. My initial thought was, “well, liberal arts are like Santa Clause - their existence sure would be nice”, by which I meant that the humanities and social studies (as scholastic disciplines) have effectively vanished from the academic scene. While it might be unfair to castigate bachelor of arts recipients as prospective overly-qualified baristas, the skills they acquire are often seen as suspect and difficult to objectively assess. Furthermore, so long as postmodern deconstructionist nihilism pervades the humanities and victimhood grievance mongering dominates social studies, the prospects for pursuing such a degree seem disappointingly dim.
As for those who earn a STEM degree (whom I shall call “quants” since the term “nerd” has been insultingly dismissed as someone obsessed with some esoteric topic), whatever deficiencies one might find with them or other fact-driven fields (such as medicine), their graduates learn how to approach and solve select classes of problems related to their quantitative study. However, what really bothers me about the article was the implication that the liberal arts (whose grads I will refer to as “artsers” brevity’s sake) present a preferable perspective to interpret the world around them than STEM does.
Properly taught, the liberal arts describe and seek to explain the human condition. Such contributions are needed to interact coherently with others and endure whatever tragedies that befall us, but they don’t present realistic analogs to the physical environs in which we inhabit. Thus the topic of intervention by Greek deities in Homer’s Iliad enables a better understanding of ancient philosophy, but offers little insight into the material resources available to the Mycenaean and Trojan societies or why they collapsed at the end of the Late Bronze Age.
Further still was Meyrat’s conceit that “A student trained in the liberal arts is much better suited for training in STEM than vice versa”, as well as what seem to be the article’s main allegation,
“Those students who exerted themselves and embraced humanities classes would prosper and live their best lives. Those who… insisted that they were ‘math people’ … might have had hard skills in the hard sciences, but that hardness made them inflexible in a rapidly changing environment. Those who reject the liberal arts never learn how to be independent. Almost by necessity, they adopt what Friedrich Nietzsche termed a ‘slave morality’—they need a master to employ them, lead them, and think for them. They don’t create, they merely operate in what’s already been created. In many ways, this is easier than continually asking difficult questions and developing complex answers.”
There are three claims one can discern from these comments: first, that quants lack imagination thus cannot innovate, second that quants must be led by artsers to accomplish anything worthwhile, and third, that artsers could more easily replace quants than the reverse. To my mind, none of these assertions are true.
I’ll readily admit that my professional careers have operated in social bubbles largely isolated from most daily experiences, as we focus on labeling leaves to gain greater perspective on seeing the forest. But uncreative? Granted, quants are unlikely to assign imaginative pronouns to the albatross in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but give a quant a technical problem, and they’ll find all sorts of ways to fix it. The STEM community provides numerous opportunities for debating contentious issues that are resolved by evaluating trade-offs between benefit and cost within constraints imposed by physics, as well as investigating the relevant facts and their relative importance in relation to the problem to be tackled.
So while it may be true that offices along Mahogany Row are and will continue to be filled with far more artsers than quants, some of whom were classically educated, I am skeptical that this circumstance is widespread. The Apollo mission might have been a geopolitical national prestige assignment organized by artsers, but landing men on the moon required a lot of innovation on the part of the quants to accomplish.
As to the question of whether quants – trained in meticulous material responses and logical proofs – are drones that exhibit Nietzsche’s “slave mentality” this perception is understandable. Quants operate in organized units from small groups to teams of thousands of employees, and other than one’s immediate colleagues with individual satisfaction of successful outcomes, the results are quite impersonal. Participating in these endeavors is a vocation chosen by comparatively few in our society for reasons of cognitive difficulty and social isolation. But these roles are needed in society and it requires frequent innovation – hardly attributes of servile role.
Balancing the Two Ways of Looking at the World
The dichotomy between humanities and sciences in an old one and was elucidated in C. P. Snow’s 1959 book Two Cultures. According to Snow, increased specialization inhibits communication between the two sides. While exposure to literature, rhetoric, music and visual artistry can benefit the quant in the appreciation of ethics, I contend that instruction in the liberal arts ought to be augmented by aspects of the mechanical and electrical realm. That mutuality of cross-communication seems missing in most discussions regarding STEM and liberal arts, and this absence of balance fosters mutual suspicion. To say nothing of the fact that a poor understanding among the public of basic science renders voter accountability moot.
A particular example of the need to augment the liberal arts comes to mind. Formerly known as “global warming”, climate change represents a broad and pervasive impetus among the woke. This green Siren that an uncontrollable rise in global surface temperatures will jeopardize human flourishing, gains more traction than other ideological jihads because challenging its assertions necessitates broad technical knowledge. But this issue and its proposed solutions remain contentious largely due to scientific ignorance, especially among the elite, as was sadly exemplified by Harvard graduates accounting for seasonal changes. This doesn’t mean that the typical plumber could reasonably be expected to qualitatively compare fossil fuels and their purported alternatives, the inherent limitations of climate modeling, or the relative merits of nuclear energy, but shouldn’t an art history graduate at least be able to articulate the principle of conservation of energy?
This would be the ideal, but it is not something that will be forthcoming any time soon, due to the wholesale institutional capture of the liberal arts by the Woke and the parallel problem of credential credibility and its effect on leading institutions in media, academia, judiciary and bureaucracy. Nowadays, a liberal arts degree from a mid-ranked college leads to few professional prospects absent any personal connections and/or luck. Meantime, the Ivy grads marinate in group-think over whatever outrages the Twitter mob that day. STEM degrees on the other hand can be awarded at most large campuses and provide opportunities for steady remuneration corresponding to the technical knowledge acquired through study and examination.
Considering that, it would seem reasonable to suggest to students to pursue both the liberal arts and STEM in order to gain a more complete education. A few talented and ambitious college students take this route, but that will always be the exception. Moreover, not only does the social-economic demand for quants exceeds that of their artser counterparts, but studies and laboratory assignments in the STEM field can be substantial. Their goals and objectives are tangible and can only be achieved through mastering established mathematical, chemical and mechanical properties or techniques, as well as logic to infer reasonable conclusions. All of this takes time to learn and thereby crowd out other culturally germane subjects.
The educational period before we become adults expected to earn our keep is too short to be warehousing kids in high school or wasting time in pursuit of the Liberal Arts where vast pockets of it have been infested with postmodernist quicksand that denies reality and “social construct” wishful thinking. And perhaps is is true that quants are generally dull unimaginative people, but if the imagination of the liberal arts boils down to thespian make-believe, I’m less enthusiastic about its efficacy to benefit society.
A Balancing Act Weighted in One Direction
Admittedly, humans do not readily socialize around technology, being viewed by the public as a grudging necessity – except for handfuls of quants who enjoy that sort of thing. Rather, people gather together to tell inspirational stories, whether orally presented or recorded in script for posterity or depicted visually in art. Such forms of expression invite dialog for exchanging ideas. But then one might ask, does desiring to experience a harmonious exchange of those ideas with others rest with the liberal arts? Do artsers elevate discourse or improve our wellbeing? In our contemporary climate, there are ample reasons for misgivings.
The late historian Jacques Barzun observed: “The so-called humanities have meaning chiefly because of the inhumanity of life; what they depict and discuss is strife and disaster. The Iliad is not about world peace; King Lear is not about a well-rounded man; Madame Bovary is not about the judicious employment of leisure time.” Do any of those cautionary tales imply humanity’s future resides in the liberal arts? Doubtful, unless the inspiration from such erudition compensates for the unmitigated tragedies of living within the “red in tooth and claw” realm of nature, barely eking out survival on the margins of existence. I’d rather take my chances that some inventor create techniques to overcome the natural limits of our weaknesses and pave the way for easier and more productive thriving.
To be sure, the liberal arts can be a source of wisdom, even enchantment or as those (according to Meyrat) “who fully realizes their own humanity can also live a better life based on reason and virtue rather than market forces, government mandates, or societal customs.” Whether implied or not, “Liberal Arts are the Future” indicates that for civilization to endure, liberal arts must supplant STEM in priority. But for the time being, any such developments that will allows to thrive and prosper into a new era, whether on Mars as Elon Musk proposes or here on our home-world, can will only be accomplished through STEM.
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