Everybody and their extended families has been sharing around the Fareed Zakaria piece on liberal education. This, as you might imagine, is relevant to my interests. So I wrote up a response over at Forbes.
The basic argument of the response is the same thing I've been relentlessly flogging around here for a few years: that while I'm all for a broad education, the notion that studying a STEM subject and studying "the human condition" are in opposition or even cleanly separable is just foolish. But it's a great excuse to start that argument at Forbes, so...
I think when people complain about the lack of liberal education for STEM majors, they're not complaining about you or me or our departments. Rather, they're complaining about the Engineering (or, worse, Engineering Technology) majors who complain at having to learn mathematics or physics rather than just being given steps to solve the equations that will come up in their branch of engineering. They're also complaining about engineering departments requiring 75 credits in the department (plus another 20 for the physics and math prereqs) for the major, leaving no room for electives.
Being ensconced in a liberal arts college, you might not have seen some of the abuses of the notion of college education that are out there.
I'm no fan of Zakaria's, but I don't interpret him here as saying that it is not important to study the sciences or technologies, or as saying that one must choose between sciences and humanities, only that both are important. The fact that you explicitly admit to putting scare quotes around "the humanities" -an expression some form of which has been in use for several centuries - while trying to define those merely as "art and literature" suggests that you do have a bias towards thinking they are unimportant. Without putting words in Zakaria's mouth, I suspect he would agree that history and philosophy - which are humanities - have as much to tell educated people about the human condition as do the life sciences. Nobody has ever said, "Those who do not know biology are condemned to repeat history", after all.
We probably need something slightly more appealing than STEM, which sounds like a complicated tax form, or something nasty you might catch if you eat the wrong thing. Who would choose that over "the humanities"?
Rather, they’re complaining about the Engineering (or, worse, Engineering Technology) majors who complain at having to learn mathematics or physics rather than just being given steps to solve the equations that will come up in their branch of engineering.
I think there is some truth to this. Engineers seem particularly susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect: they may have extensive knowledge of their own branch of engineering, but many of them don't realize how little they know about other fields of study. To take just one example, many of the loudest proponents of "global warming is a hoax" are engineers, to such an extent that whenever you see a claim that N scientists have signed some document to that effect, you can expect an overwhelming majority of those alleged scientists to be engineers (and the overwhelming majority of actual scientists who sign such letters specialize in areas other than atmospheric science). It's also quite common for scientists to participate in other areas, far more common than for engineers; e.g., the Union of Concerned Scientists is a fairly well-known organization (at least among readers of this blog), but there does not seem to be a Union of Concerned Engineers (when I Googled that phrase, the first four hits were from UCS's website, the fifth was the Wikipedia entry for UCS, and the sixth was a YouTube video from 2013 advocating the formation of a Union of Concerned Engineers).
Nice defense of science -- writ large -- in your Forbes piece, Chad. I agree with every bit of your analysis, particularly identifying the rhetorical tricks in Zakaria's piece. Putting your liberal education gen eds to good use, I see!
I would agree with jane@#2 if it was clear just what science and math classes Zakaria took during his undergrad years. Most humanists take a couple of non-science science classes and some "math for HS graduates" class that togehter amount to nothing more than "getting the gen eds out of the way".
The argument Zakaria makes is premised on the idea that science is a waste of time if we want to advance our civilization and that people do not need to act scientifically when confronting the world.
Jane: " Without putting words in Zakaria’s mouth, I suspect he would agree that history and philosophy – which are humanities – have as much to tell educated people about the human condition as do the life sciences."
Eh, philosophy is just wordy navel-gazing. Very little of it has any value. I agree with you on history. People who don't remember their mistakes.. and so on.
philosophy is just wordy navel-gazing.
Speaking as a person with a couple of science degrees, that's simply untrue.
GregH: Philosophy is one subject where milage significantly varies. I got nothing out of the class I took. Plato and Descartes are just words, words and more words. Arendt, Mills and Locke managed to wrestle some interesting concepts out of it, but I really doubt they understood how people work. Arendt was very oddly optimistic- you'd think someone of her caliber would understand that people will always do evil rather than good when they're allowed to get away with it, as the Germans were. Locke and Mills kinda failed to understand that people are not natural democrats- they WANT to be led and decisions paralyze them.