“STEM, the Humanities, and Global Education”
Distinguished Speaker Series
The College of Education
University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa
October 15, 2013
Dean Colangelo, distinguished scholars, friends:
It is my intent to address the psychological rupture that is emerging between STEM and the humanities and suggest that if not reconsidered, this misconceived cleavage could affect our quality of life and American leadership in the world.
My thesis is that the humanities and fields of inquiry related to science, technology, engineering and math are complementary rather than competitive. Each set of disciplines is essential. Each bolsters the other. Indeed, the humanities without STEM define economic stagnation, and STEM without the humanities could precipitate social disaster.
By perspective, half a century ago the British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered a controversial lecture at Cambridge University called “The Two Cultures” in which he lamented the gulf between scientists and a group he described as “literary intellectuals.” He cited several examples: scientists ignorant of the cultural insights of Dickens and humanists ignorant of the second law of thermodynamics.
At the risk of exaggeration, the gulf Snow depicted might be described as illiteracy matching innumeracy in the citadels of academia. But however defined, Snow held that the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities hindered an understanding of social challenges. Assuming some legitimacy to this contention, what is the situation five decades later?
In many ways the science-humanities distinction is more complicated today as advances in physics, biology and chemistry have become more complex.
Nonetheless, from a methodological perspective, the technological revolution that began with the development of the point-contact transistor and thence the digital electronic computer, the integrated circuit, and the microprocessor has found the humanities and sciences sharing a growing portion of common ground.
Just as computers allow mathematical computations applied to scientific inquiry to be made at blinding speed, so the digitization of images of a myriad of pictures and objects and billions of words harvested from books, journals, and documents enables the application of scientific methods to vast amounts of cultural and social science data. Indeed, the new research “tools” that STEM has wrought have spawned a new academic field called the digital humanities which is particularly well suited for cross-disciplinary, cross-institution, and cross-border collaborations.
Based on research pioneered in educational institutions across the country, commercial firms like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Apple, and Google have been given the opportunity to advance new kinds of consumer products and services. As a consequence, the revolutionary hallmark of our times is the emergence of a New Digital Class, characterized less by occupation, birth, geographic location, and the science-humanities divide than by an individual’s degree of curiosity, diligence and access to digital technology.
The important division in the new communications age is no longer the one between science and the humanities. It is in the first instance the growing gulf between those who have crossed the digital divide and those who by choice, lack of access or capacity have not; and in the second, between those who seek information from diverse sources with an open-minded perspective and those who choose to rely on single-dimensioned purveyors of views.
Since the Enlightenment, the issue of equality has been viewed as a political ideal tied to democratic institutions and governmental policies of the moment. But in the modern world access to knowledge is becoming as central to advancing social equality and opportunity across the globe as access to the ballot box has proven to be the key to advancing political rights.
The question of whether a tweeting world will cause greater understanding and social integration at the community and international level or lead to greater intolerance and social splintering is yet to be resolved. What is clear is that few revolutions in history can match the democratizing consequences for individual learning of the development and spread of digital communication devices and the software capacities that fuel use of such hardware.
If a wide-eyed creature sitting on the moon this last century were assigned the task of assessing what constructive happenings had occurred on earth, that creature would have to conclude that the most impressive achievements of man in this period of world wars, religious and ideological strife clearly has been in the STEM disciplines. Conversely, these advances have also added to the vulnerability of humankind.
After all, at the same time that the capacity to compute and correlate, heal the sick, communicate to the most distant corners of civilization, and travel around the earth, even into outer space, has leaped forward, the power to destroy and do harm has also grown exponentially. For the first time in man’s existence, the capacity exists not only to wage war but to destroy life on the planet. As Einstein so presciently warned, splitting the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking.
Vulnerability is now the state of man, everywhere.
Civilization is jeopardized at one end by weapons of mass destruction and at the other by hatred-driven anarchy. For the first time in history terrorism has been globalized and asymmetric warfare computerized. Just as a plot was hatched against America on 9/11 from a mountainous redoubt halfway around the world, cyber-attacks may with increasing ease be launched from distant computer “silos.” In less than a decade the United States has become
vulnerable to foreign powers or galvanized groups capable of wreaking havoc on our economic infrastructure – everything from the electric grid to the financial system – without a shot being fired.
The national security dilemma of our age is that the more advanced and open a society, the more exposed it is to anarchistic acts.
Man’s fate has never been more interwoven with unprecedented security challenges. Optimism can only be presumed if STEM advances are coupled with greater humanistic understanding. Calculus and physics require a linkage to history and ethics. Together, STEM and the humanities flourish; apart society is jeopardized.
Despite differences that may exist between the capacity of scientists to explore the unknown in nature and the ability of scholars in the liberal arts to address life’s enduring questions, the sciences cannot ignore the humanities any more than the humanities can ignore what science has discovered.
What may be counter-intuitive to many is that the challenges in the humanities exceed those of STEM. This is the case because grasping
and sharing the art of human understanding is vastly more difficult than mastering the technology embedded in smart phones and the most powerful computers. Love and hate, beauty and fear are more complex than high speed algorithms and non-Euclidean geometry.
There is every reason to honor the sciences and support investigations into the unknown, be they related to the beginnings of the universe or the extending
of human life. Yet, in the end, dark matter and dark energy may be easier to understand in the physical sciences than dark motives are in the social arena. The Higgs boson has been identified and, perhaps by extrapolation, found, but peace on earth has not been secured.
The bottom line case for humanities studies is thus a risk management one: the necessity of developing the wisdom, policies and tools to avoid the apocalypse. The only credible methodology to secure and ennoble life on the planet is to build habits and techniques of conflict resolution that do not involve recourse to violence at every level of social interaction.
Accordingly, stewards of national power – and in a democracy that means all of us – have no choice except to strive to understand more fully the human condition. Livelihoods and life itself demands attention to wide horizons. As important as controversies of the day, politics of the moment, may be, they
are generally surface concerns. To understand problems on the surface it is necessary to know the depths below: the history and culture of one’s own society and that of others, even the most distant.
Just as we need an infrastructure of roads and bridges, we need an infrastructure of ideas.
Yet, there appears to be a gathering sentiment, symbolized by recent initiatives in the political arena, that higher education should move away from an emphasis on the liberal arts to teaching discrete job skills, especially as related to STEM disciplines. The assumption that jobs are the number one issue for most Americans is valid; a conclusion, however, that the humanities are not central to job creation is mistaken. Indeed, such a conclusion could too easily lead to policy prescriptions that undercut American competiveness and the national interest itself.
A myth of our times is that the humanities are good for the soul but irrelevant to the pocket book. Actually they are central to the creation of jobs and long- term American competitiveness.
Testifying before Congress two years ago, Hunter Rawlings, a former president of the University of Iowa and the current president of the Association of American Universities, noted that a survey of employers by his association indicated that 73% rejected the trend towards narrow technical training and wanted colleges and universities to place more emphasis on critical thinking and analytic reasoning.
It is true that many jobs such as in the building trades are skill-centric, but job creation itself requires leadership which in turn requires an understanding of community and the world. Change and its acceleration characterize the times. With each passing year jobs evolve, become more sophisticated. Training for one skill set may be of little assistance for another. On the other hand, studies that stimulate the imagination and nourish capacities to analyze and think outside the box are well-suited to the challenges of change. They make coping with the unprecedented a manageable endeavor.
What is needed in a world in flux is a new understanding of the meaning of the basics in education. Traditionally, the basics are about the three “R’s,” which here in Iowa are sometimes understood to be “‘readin, ‘ritin, and ‘restlin.” However defined, they are critical. Nonetheless, they are insufficient. What are also needed are studies that provide perspective on our times and foster citizen understanding of their own communities, other cultures, and the creative process.
To understand and compete in the world we need a fourth “R,” what for lack of a precise moniker might be described as “reality” – which includes not only relevant knowledge of the world near and far but the imaginative capacity to creatively apply knowledge to discrete issues and undertakings.
Rote thinking is the standard of the status quo. Stimulating the imagination is the key to the future. As Einstein once observed, imagination is more important than knowledge, and his life is proof of the imaginative mind trumping skill-
set knowledge. In a math-based science, Einstein was never considered a first tier mathematician. But he was an unparalleled imaginer. In pondering self- initiated thought problems he probed the meaning of the universe.
As individuals each of us tries to make sense of our own odysseys through life. Our universe is small in relation not only to the solar system but the communities in which we live. But wherever we might be, we are affected by global events, whether related to the challenges of national security or the global hiring hall. In this insecure geo-political environment, a deeper comprehension of the fourth “R” (reality) has never been more important.
What better way is there to apply perspective to our times than to study the history of prior times? What better way is there to learn to write well
than to read great literature? What better way is there to think critically and understand American traditions than to parse the thinking of Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Montesquieu and review their influence on our founders and our Constitutional system? And, do not art making and art appreciation instill a sense for the creative process?
The principal rationale for humanities studies is that they enhance the meaning of life and embellish what it means to be human. This rationale is so powerful that it too easily obscures the utilitarian case which is also compelling.
How can we compete in our own markets if we don’t understand our own culture and its enormous variety of subcultures, or abroad if we don’t understand foreign languages, histories and traditions?
How can we understand our own era and the place of our own values if we don’t study other faith systems – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and the relationship of diverse religions to the Old and New Testaments?
How can we contain prejudice and counter forces of hatred if we don’t come to know more about each other?
How can we undergird our civic institutions and precipitate sound public policy if we don’t understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?
The dilemma of today’s politics is that America has an abundance of leadership in commerce, science, the arts and every facet of the academy but the political system is hamstrung by ideological cleavages. President Eisenhower warned years ago of a military-industrial complex. Today my worry is more about
the rise of a “political-ideological complex.” Ideologues use politicians as pawns while politicians use ideologues, especially those with deep pockets, as enablers of personal ambition. This reinforcing set of mutual interests has little to do with the common good and much to do with the break-down in civility in public life.
Yet seldom has it been more important for individuals in the public arena to appeal to the better angels rather than the baser instincts of the body politic. Whether the issues are social or economic, domestic or international, the temptation to appeal to the darker side of human nature must be avoided. The stakes are too high. The health of nations is directly related to the temperance of statecraft, to whether public officials inspire hope or manipulate fear.
It is also related to the depth of knowledge applied to decision-making. In reviewing, for example, our decision to go to war in Iraq it is extraordinary how inadequate attention to cultural issues may have cost lives and reputations as well as money. Yes, there was an “intelligence” failure related to misjudgments about alleged Iraqi complicity in 9/11 and the status of Iraq’s nuclear and bio- chemical weapons capacities. But the greatest “intelligence” failure was our
lack of understanding of the region itself.
Despite having gone to war in the Persian Gulf a decade earlier, Congress and Executive branch policy makers understood little of the Sunni/Shi’a divide when 9/11 hit. Likewise, despite the French experience in Algeria and the British and Russian in Afghanistan, we had little comprehension of the depth of Islamic antipathy to foreign intervention. And, despite the tactics of a Daniel Boone- style patriot named Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, who attacked British garrisons at night during the Revolutionary War and then vanished in South Carolina swamps during the day, we had little sense for the effectiveness of asymmetric warfare.
A skeptic once suggested that the humanities are little more than studies of flaws in human nature. Actually they uplift on the one hand and warn on the other. The power of a few to commit acts of societal destruction and the contrasting capacity of a few to precipitate uplifting change has grown exponentially in the last century. A race between these contrasting capacities is gathering momentum.
For the best of our values to prevail, Americans must awake from historical slumber. A renewed emphasis on the study of various liberal arts disciplines, especially history, is vital because of our unique role in the world and because academic testing tells us that Americans have more limited historical and geographic knowledge than virtually any other advanced society.
To look presciently forward we have no choice except to look carefully back.
History has a circular quality. It tends to repeat, sometimes rewind. Wisdom, by contrast is linear. Smart people, parents tell their children, learn from their own mistakes. A really smart person, a corollary might suggest, learns from the mistakes of others. And a sage gleans great truths from the wise as well as mistaken steps of those who came before.
Every circumstance is, of course, different than any other. We don’t ever walk in exactly the same way in the same physical or social environment. People and situations change. Hence it is important to think imaginatively as well as pragmatically and historically. There are many ways to stimulate the imagination, from reading literature to studying and creating art. But the lynchpins that most often tie other studies together are history and story-telling, oral and written. No disciplines outside the humanities more effectively allow us to put on the shoes of others in past ages and different contemporary circumstances.
St. Paul once suggested that we all look through a glass darkly. Metaphorically, Paul may have made the ultimate case for humility. While faith may be absolute, Paul suggests that man simply doesn’t have the capacity to know the will of God or apply perfectly the wisdom of His apostles on earth. An analogous lack of certitude should be applied to history. There can be clarity about certain historical facts like names and dates but the whys and wherefores of events can be elusive. It is no accident that history can be more controversial than current events. Nonetheless, despite the fog that always hovers over memory, it is clear that the deeper our understanding of the past, the greater our capacity to cope with the present and mold the future.
Life of society and the individual is a continuum. History may be the story of the dead but it never dies. It continues to shape who we are and how we think.
Shelley once described poets as unacknowledged legislators. The great 19th Century American poet of the common man, Walt Whitman, went further and implied their authority stretched beyond traditional political
conceptions. Intoxicated with the notion that poetry could be an antidote to violence, he once wrote that his greatest dream was for “an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy…”
A third of the way around the world from this great heartland academic center, Dostoevsky affirmed something similar: “Beauty,” he said, “will save the world.”
A third of the way around the world in the opposite direction, Confucius suggested that “when music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war.”
All of this sounds rather naïve but there are few people in the political realm who ever understood the human condition better than Shelley, Whitman, Dostoevsky and Confucius. Their angle of vision was philosophy and literature. They understood that the thinking of man must be uplifted. Words and thought patterns matter. When pieced together in the logic of works like Mein Kampf, they may be used to instill hate and divide, or they may, as in the poetry of Shelley and Whitman, the novels of Dostoevsky and the wisdom of Confucius, be used to reach out and unite. These are our choices.
In making these choices, care has to be taken to recognize that seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual, one political party or one country.
Whether a person knows a great deal or very little, caution should be taken about being certain of very much. To know a lot may be a preferable condition to knowing little, but the best and the brightest are not immune from great mistakes. Imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition. That is why humility is such a valued character trait, and why civility is such an important part of an interconnected world polity.
Half a century ago, the British author Lawrence Durrell wrote a set of novels called the Alexandria Quartet. Each one was a first person narrative covering the same cluster of minor events between the two world wars in Alexandria, Egypt. An individual may wonder why read about the same happenings four different times? It ends up that while the events are the same, the stories are quite different. One person’s perspective proved to be only a snapshot of reality. The moral Durrell implicitly sets forth is that a clear picture cannot be pieced together without looking through the lens of a multiplicity of eyes and experiences. If such is the case in one town in one time frame, doesn’t it take many eyes and many perspectives to develop a bare inkling of understanding of a moving kaleidoscope of events?
The most meaningful discovery in a liberal arts education is that everything is related to everything else, although we may not know it at the time.
Wisdom involves the tying together of threads of learning. The challenge is to discover and then correlate discoveries, the most important of which relate to perspective: values, methods of thinking and doing, rather than facts.
The insights provided by humanities disciplines and the judgmental capacity to think broadly and correlate cogently which they inculcate are not dismissible options for society. Humanities studies revitalize the human spirit, rev up our productive engines, and lessen the likelihood of mistake-making in public policy as well as private life.
In American governance, process is our most important product. We used to instinctively treasure these processes and trumpet them as a model for
the world. Today many around the globe see us as running through a rough patch. In exasperation and more than a little anger, American citizens find themselves increasingly using the adjective “dysfunctional” to describe Washington politics. We have had more difficult times in our history. Far greater political intransigence, for instance, was reflected in the decade before the Civil War. Nevertheless, it is jarring for the public to see tremors develop in credit markets as budgets are put together in a crisis manner. There is fair reason at all times for philosophical disagreements to be aired between the political parties. But the greater our problems, the more important it is for the political establishment to work out differences in an open and respectful manner.
Loyalty should be to country rather than party, to Constitutional processes rather than partisan posturing.
At the moment, America leads the world in almost every academic field, but a crisis is looming in the humanities as publicly supported research has by a 200 to 1 margin become more focused on laboratories than libraries. The key for the future is to establish a responsible balance that does not need to be defined as equality of public research spending. Scientific research, after all, is substantially more expensive than humanistic inquiries. But a balance of concern should be sought that recognizes that the humanities and areas of study included in STEM are intertwined.
In recent months arts advocates have made a thoughtful case that the letter “a” be added to STEM to form the acronym STEAM to underscore the creative impulse that is freed across culture by the arts. A vivid example of the tie between the arts and sciences is reflected in a comment from a prominent 19th Century portrait painter, Daniel Huntington, who wrote of his mentor, Samuel F.B. Morse: “Professor Morse’s world-wide fame rests … on his invention of the electrical telegraph; but it should be remembered that the qualities of mind which led to it were developed in the progress of his art studies.”
According to his student, every studio was for Morse “more or less a laboratory.” Similarly, the lives of 18th Century inventors like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the Russian polymath, Mikhail Lomonosov, illustrate how the humanities and the sciences are manifestations of conjoined creative impulses.
It is sometimes appropriate and helpful to distinguish parts from the whole. Yet the big picture in higher education isn’t about pitting parts against each other. The challenge today is to strengthen all the parts to make a greater whole.
Both the acronyms STEM and STEAM have merit, but to provide a fuller balance the academic community might consider unifying in support of itself. At the risk of presumption and hyperbole, I would suggest that “HUMANASTEAM” might be an appropriate rallying concept. It is a conceptualization unlikely to make a dictionary, or even a t-shirt. Nonetheless, “HUMANASTEAM” advocacy fits the times better than many other labels because there simply is no credible basis for intra-collegiate academic conflict.
I have never come across a humanist who does not support the sciences, or a scientist who does not support the arts and humanities. There are, however, public figures who are expressing grave doubts about the relevance of the liberal arts, even political science which Aristotle described as the highest art. How should the academy respond?
I would suggest that policy makers in government and administrators in the academy might consider the relevance of the following:
1) In the wake of Sputnik the Eisenhower Administration pressed not only for new support for STEM research but for enhanced foreign language training and support for international studies programs. The question of whether the time is appropriate to press new, expanded legislation modeled after elements of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 is worthy of review. Sputnik underscored the importance of paying enhanced attention to threats emanating from the Soviet Union. Today very different challenges symbolized by 9/11 are evident. They spring from different regions of the world and require responses that must be informed by complex cultural understanding. Public policy options might be enhanced by STEM advances but they will be insufficiently thought through without humanities input.
2) It is critical that every American generation have an educated citizenry and a steady infusion of talented individuals prepared for public service. A number of universities have spawned public policy schools that are leadership oriented. Universities without such schools might look at models like Syracuse’s Maxwell School, Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, the Harvard Kennedy School, Johns Hopkins SAIS, the Tufts School of Public Policy, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, the Dole Institute at Kansas, the LBJ School at Texas, the Ford School at Michigan, the La Follette School at Wisconsin, the Evans School at Washington, the Sanford School at Duke, and the Graham Center for Public Service at Florida. Whether called Schools of Public and International Affairs or Ethics and Public Policy Centers, institutional undertakings of this nature provide a mechanism for cross-disciplinary studies that have relevance for business, non-profit, and journalism careers as well as government service. Public policy schools are especially important today because of our globalized economy, because the links between the humanities and national security issues are so tangible, and because governance in today’s geo-political circumstance requires high quality, well-educated public servants and an enlightened citizenry.
3) All academic approaches are affected by university and college decision-making on courses required and majors offered. Universities might find it helpful to review whether to energize the academy with more cross-disciplinary majors, perhaps modeling on Oxford’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) program. Harvard, for instance, has a similar option but stamped the major with an inappropriate name (Social Studies); other schools like Northern Arizona University call a new program Philosophy, Politics and Law. The university administration was surprised with the enthusiasm of the student body when the new major was unrolled a year ago. Many more signed up than expected. Other approaches might involve other combinations of studies in the humanities, social and natural sciences: History, Literature and Philosophy, for instance, would in effect be a modern version of what classics majors studied about eras that go back several millennia; Art History, Comparative Religion and the Classics might be considered an inspired doubling down on the humanities; Psychology and Literature might lead future clinical professionals to discuss with their patients lessons from literary works; and Science, Ethics and Economics could further combine humanities and social science courses with STEM education. Many other academic combinations could be considered, perhaps with optional student input. But for disciplines that have not changed as much as the times, the case for experimenting with cross-disciplinary “oomph” would seem compelling. Multi-disciplinary approaches appear to be desirable for students and reflect trends that are increasingly evident in scholarly research. Departments don’t have to shutter. They simply have to coordinate and engage more fully with other academic disciplines.
4) International studies have never mattered more for America and for the world. Consideration should be given to requiring all undergraduates and perhaps students in some professional graduate schools to take a full year multi-disciplinary course in World Cultures. Such a course could be envisioned to be history-centric but multi-disciplinary. It might begin, for instance, with an astronomer discussing the 8 billion year history of our universe and then quickly proceed to review the ancient civilizations of the Middle East, China, India, Greece and Rome emphasizing classics, philosophy, comparative religions, and then go through the Middle Ages and the Dark Ages when Muslim scholarship shined, and then the Enlightenment. A second semester could begin with the Western migration to America and end with modern regional geo-politics. The history, politics, literature, philosophy, religion, sociology, archaeology, classics, economics, engineering, education, and science faculties (speaking especially to the history of science and technology) could all be involved. Students given a sampling of cross-disciplinary approaches would have their eyes opened to fields of interest they would otherwise never encounter. This survey approach could be the most memorable and formative course they take in their undergraduate years.
5) With the Internet, access to knowledge has been democratized across the planet. Moocs are suddenly and rightly in vogue. Yet colleges and universities remain the center of American education and culture. There remains no better teaching method than tutored interchanges of ideas, what used to be described as sitting on a log with a mentor. Old-fashioned, labor-intensive teaching matters. There is a thirst in every corner of America for quality cultural programming. This is true in the creative arts; it is also true in a broad array of academic disciplines. Everybody in the academy has a role to play. Whether it is a standard university course, community programming, or classes offered by individual institutions at night and on weekends, it is important that America be brought together with shared exchanges of ideas. There is no more effective antidote to uncivil behavior than citizen engagement involving models of civil discourse that feature a wide expression of opinions. Such engagement is the daily grist of the academy. Centuries past, the enhancement of citizenship was considered a prime responsibility of educators. It is even more important today. The academy has to be more than about itself.
Education is an enterprise that like all others has a price tag. So in this era of splintered politics and globalized economic competition, the question for policy makers is straight-forward: should attention to the humanities be upgraded or allowed to become decreasingly relevant? In pondering a response it is instructive to consider the “what ifs?” in the life of a nation. What if there had been no Vietnam War, no intervention in Iraq, no maintenance of troops in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the first Gulf War, the presence of which was the cause célèbre of the al-Qaeda plotters who struck the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001? Would America today have a stronger economy, more security at home, and less anti-American hostility around the globe?
We, of course, have no choice except to plug ahead with policy options constrained by contemporary events. But of the many lessons emerging from this generation of strife, one surely is that cultural considerations matter, that humanities research and outreach programs and, most significantly, curricula in colleges and universities, are compelling social investments.
Which brings me to the final “what if?” What if society allows humanities studies to fade in significance?
Absent attention to humanities disciplines, is it not likely that America’s capacity to lead the world and manage our own institutions of governance and commerce will diminish?
To fail to study history and ponder deeply what it means to be human, to refuse to contemplate the human condition revealed so resplendently in great literature, and to decline to think through the sources of our religious differences and the ethical and philosophical quandaries of the day is to impoverish our potential for making good decisions. Inevitably, we would magnify the misjudgments of our contemporaries and cut ourselves off from the wisdom of others in the near and ancient past.
We discount the role, indeed the power, of the liberal arts at great cost and greater risk.
 Leach is University of Iowa Chair of Public Affairs and Visiting Professor of Law in the College of Law.