Though employers, educators and even parents have fixated on STEM disciplines to prepare young people for jobs in an increasingly technological society, a recently convened expert panel said it’s important to remember the humanities.
And above all, they said, young people should be encouraged to do what they’re passionate about.
The panel on “Why STEM Needs the Arts & Humanities” was assembled by the Institute for Humanities at Monroe Community College earlier this month, and included:
- Amanda Roth, assistant professor of philosophy and women’s studies at SUNY Geneseo, who also moderated;
- David C. Munson, president of Rochester Institute of Technology;
- Eric Berridge, CEO of Bluewolf, an IBM Company.
Michael Jacobs, dean of humanities and social sciences at MCC and director of the institute, said the rise in global technologies has been accompanied by a precipitous drop in interest in majors in the humanities, which include English, modern languages, history, social sciences, philosophy, anthropology and others.
“This is a false dichotomy and stunts our growth as human beings,” Jacobs said. STEM education needs people educated in what it means to be human,” he said.
Education in the humanities, Roth said, nevertheless may lead to a job in the STEM arena. Those majors specialize in skills that STEM jobs need, she suggested, including critical thinking, reading comprehension, logical analysis, argumentation, persuasive communication, ethics and values, and global and multicultural awareness.
For instance, Nissan used anthropological studies of human behavior to improve its driverless cars, she said.
All three panelists provided evidence, whether personal or general, that people who succeed in technology fields often bring with them varied experience outside of science, technology, engineering and math.
Berridge, for example, has spent his entire career working in computer software but majored in English and rhetoric. He told a story, reprised from a TED Talk he gave in 2018 about how he and his Bluewolf partners sent in a bartender, who majored in philosophy but dropped out of college, to negotiate with an unhappy client. The bartender used his good listening skills and analytical mind to figure out what the client really needed instead of focusing on the technical issues that had stumped the programmers.
And though Munson is an electrical engineer by training, he described his brief and joyful career as theater parent that led to his starring as the Tin Man in a production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Munson has, since arriving at RIT, made efforts to swing the university toward more music and performing arts as a way to engage and expand upon the multiple talents of science-minded students.
“My advice is always take a degree in what you’re passionate about,” Munson said. But he also recommended liberal arts majors take some courses in business and computing while STEM majors add courses in creativity and synthesis.
In the growing demand for cybersecurity experts, he said, “We need more people working on the problem who actually understand humans.” Issues of privacy and ethics come from humanities studies, he noted.
“We’re living in a world where technology is easier to consume, to learn,” Berridge said, so it’s not always necessary anymore to get a degree in technology to be able to use it, he said. “The path of your success is to find your own passion.”
Roth talked about a college fair where a student was headed toward a table for philosophy and women’s studies when a parent grabbed the student’s arm and led him in another direction.
Munson added that during the depths of the Great Recession, parents were afraid their children wouldn’t get a job after graduating from college, and enrollments in computer science programs tripled. But he cautioned that picking a major based on a job ignores the fact that people and their interests change, he said, noting that he never dreamed of being a college president.
Berridge was even more direct: “It’s irresponsible for us to push children into subject matter we think will get them a job,” he said.
Berridge pulled job listings off a Google website and found that of the more than 9,000 jobs Google posted, less than 30 percent asked for a degree in computers. The company also needs people with expertise in marketing, sales, human relations and other non-STEM fields.
While technology fields help us know how to build things, humanities teach us what to build and why, she said.
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