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Education Science

An MIT Dean's Defense of the Humanities 264

Posted by timothy
from the she-oughtta-know dept.
AthanasiusKircher (1333179) writes "Deborah Fitzgerald, a historian of science and dean of MIT's School of the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, speaks out in a Boston Globe column about the importance of the humanities, even as STEM fields increasingly dominate public discussion surrounding higher education. '[T]he world's problems are never tidily confined to the laboratory or spreadsheet. From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale, and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities, from deeply felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions. So our students also need an in-depth understanding of human complexities — the political, cultural, and economic realities that shape our existence — as well as fluency in the powerful forms of thinking and creativity cultivated by the humanities, arts, and social sciences.' Fitzgerald goes on to quote a variety of STEM MIT graduates who have described the essential role the humanities played in their education, and she concludes with a striking juxtaposition of important skills perhaps reminscent of Robert Heinlein's famous description of an ideal human being: 'Whatever our calling, whether we are scientists, engineers, poets, public servants, or parents, we all live in a complex, and ever-changing world, and all of us deserve what's in this toolbox: critical thinking skills; knowledge of the past and other cultures; an ability to work with and interpret numbers and statistics; access to the insights of great writers and artists; a willingness to experiment, to open up to change; and the ability to navigate ambiguity.' What other essential knowledge or skills should we add to this imaginary 'toolbox'?"
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An MIT Dean's Defense of the Humanities

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  • by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Thursday May 01, 2014 @04:29PM (#46894013) Homepage

    Well, he's right, but unfortunately, the study of humanities in modern higher education has become a wasteland of anti-academic thinkers who viciously punish nonconformity and "ists" with an ax to grind and a debt to wring out of people whose ancestors they believe slighted their ancestors.

    It is sad when people interested in the sciences, who should be trained in recognizing a range of values at their hands, tar everyone with the same brush.

    Though I later moved into linguistics, I began my academic career at a Classics department at a US university, and I never heard any of my lecturers pushing any particular political agenda or trying to evoke outrage. Even the one faculty member there deeply interested in the position of women in antiquity was producing interesting, accessible scholarship for people interested in daily life in earlier eras of history, and none of it was coloured by the agenda some attribute to Women's Studies.

    As I have had contact with other universities, I've encountered many other such scholars. Sure, there are odd, agenda-driven departments out there, but let's have some perspective, please.

  • I think he's right (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ErichTheRed (39327) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @04:30PM (#46894017)

    Disclaimer: I'm a STEM graduate (chemistry) and have been out of school for about 15 years.

    The company I work for is essentially an IT services and consulting firm. Since IT and software development is not a profession like engineering or medicine, educational backgrounds differ wildly from person to person. One of the extremely rare traits that is great for our new hires to have is the critical thinking/troubleshooting/organization skills that STEM education provides, combined with a good grasp of communications skills that the humanities provide. While an English or fine arts major may not have the technical background to do some of the work we do, it's sure nice to find a STEM graduate who can write in complete sentences and document their work well.

    One of the other things that a well-rounded education does for you is that it makes you a more interesting person. I've had the opportunity to work with lots of people over the years. Those who are 100% tech-focused and those who are 100% "fluff"-focused aren't very pleasant to deal with. Somewhere in the middle of these extremes (further towards the technical in my field) can make a very knowledgeable co-worker who is also plugged into daily life and can talk intelligently about other subjects. People who are all the way over to the techie side do very good technical work, but you certainly wouldn't put them in front of a customer and won't get good documentation of their excellent work.

    I'm really not trying for self-promotion here, but I do feel that one of the reasons I haven't been unemployed for a very long time is because I'm flexible enough and have a good enough personality that employers don't feel like they're forced to keep me around just for my knowledge.

    When I was in school, bashing my brain finishing my science education, I do remember looking at the humanities, psychology and communications majors and thinking they couldn't possibly amount to anything. Looking back, I'm glad a well-rounded education was forced on me in the form of required general education classes. Allowing someone to get through schooling without at least some attempt at exploring the other side (and this cuts both ways...) means they get the equivalent of a DeVry or ITT Technical Institute education.

  • by timholman (71886) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @04:34PM (#46894067)

    I'm not quite sure where Dean Fitzgerald is coming from with this editorial. It's not as if every accredited ABET school doesn't already teach humanities as part of its engineering curriculum. In fact, the ABET 2000 accreditation process requires every engineering school to demonstrate that its undergraduate students are exposed to cultural, ethical, and economic concepts.

    As someone who works at a university and teaches engineering courses, I've heard similar remarks from faculty members in the humanities throughout my career. To me this is just another example of the old "engineers aren't fully rounded human beings, because they haven't majored in the humanities" spiel.

    "So our students also need an in-depth understanding of human complexities - the political, cultural, and economic realities that shape our existence - as well as fluency in the powerful forms of thinking and creativity cultivated by the humanities, arts, and social sciences."

    I agree completely. But where are they going to get that understanding? From my experience, probably not in a humanities classroom.

    In too many humanities courses, it's not about critical thinking, it's about figuring out the personal beliefs of the professor, because in many cases your grade depends on not offending those beliefs. I saw it when I was a student, and I still see it as a faculty member today. Too much of the grading in the humanities curriculum is entirely subjective, and in that sense I mean that it's the professor's opinion that counts the most ... and the students know it.

    When I give an exam problem, the student's political and religious beliefs are completely irrelevant to their grades. The answer is either right or wrong, with partial credit assigned according to a standard rubric. My personal prejudices are meaningless. I wouldn't have it any other way, and neither would my colleagues.

    A good engineering course teaches the essence of critical thinking: look at a problem, analyze it, write down a system of relevant equations, and solve it. What passes for critical thinking in many humanities courses is: "Repeat back my personal viewpoint verbatim, or else suffer the consequences with your grade."

    So I think I'll take this latest editorial from Dean Fitzgerald with a very, very large shaker of salt. This strikes me as yet another in a very long series of not-so-subtle digs at STEM curriculums.

  • Lifestyle (Score:1, Insightful)

    by sinequonon (669533) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @04:37PM (#46894093)
    STEM careers can allow you to live a decent lifestyle; humanities can turn that into a life worth living.
  • by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Thursday May 01, 2014 @04:38PM (#46894107) Homepage
    This gap has been talked about since C.P. Snow's famous Two Cultures [wikipedia.org] lecture, but this describes only a general trend, and one more prevalent in general society than the academy;. It certainly does not mean that all humanities students are ignorant of the sciences, and when one works in an academic setting one regularly finds counterexamples. For example, a Classics scholar working with papyri or other manuscripts will probably gain a solid knowledge of optics, the chemistry of paper, etc. I have read publications on aspects of philology that employed statistics to a degree you would think the writer had read maths at uni instead. Historians often have to read detailed archeological dig reports, and that brings in other scientific phenomena they are more likely to be aware of than many peopel who gained a degree in other science fields.
  • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @04:51PM (#46894275) Homepage Journal

    Not to mention the thousands of years of human achievement, artistic and otherwise, that's actually pretty awesome once you learn to appreciate it.

  • by roman_mir (125474) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:03PM (#46894409) Homepage Journal

    It's all fine and dandy except for one tiny problem: "humanities" that are described there are all nonsense government propaganda aimed at creating a herd of collectivist borg. Who is teaching real economics and not Keynesian crap? Who of them is teaching people to understand what freedoms are? (ability to be free from government intrusion rather than some ideology based around everybody getting equal shitty outcome based on immoral ideology of redistribution of people's lives to others?)

    Humanities COULD play a crucial role in creating an actual individual, instead they are today nothing but propaganda in the hands of the ruling elite, whose only purpose is to ensure that people are poor [youtube.com], violent, uneducated [youtube.com] slaves.

  • by LionKimbro (200000) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:10PM (#46894473) Homepage

    Snippet of a recent conversation:

    Friend: "...and people are even 3D printing houses!"

    Me: (skeptical look)

    Friend: "It'll work!"

    Me: "I have no doubts that the technology will function just fine. But in this case, it's not the technology that's the problem. We could have cheap housing all over the place, presently, and solve a million housing problems. But the problem isn't the technology."

    Friend: "Well what else would it be?"

    I explained about Seattle City's law that you can only have 8 people living in a housing unit, regardless of the size, and that this is on the liberal end of things, as far as most cities go.

    I explained about zoning, and restriction, and neighbors.

    I explained that if you could snap your fingers and make floating or underground housing, for absolutely free, either above or below the city of Seattle, people would rage with anger and complain of crime, undesirables, unsightlys, and plummeting housing values.

    The middle class stores most of its wealth in its houses, and so everybody has a gigantic freak-out if anything happens to cause housing prices to go down. We hold as a society the notion that a house is an investment vehicle, and will do anything in our collective power to make sure that housing prices go up, up, up, faster than the rate of inflation. We'll talk about "quality" and "community" and "clean neighborhoods," whatever it takes, to make sure that the next generation spends more on our houses than the generation that came before.

    What use is a 3-D printer that can print houses with ease?

    What use are robots that can programmatically generate great housing in a for-loop?

    I mean, besides becoming "the enemy of all humankind" and having all federal, state, and local laws applied against you with every bit of scrutiny that can be mustered?

    You "study the humanities" not so that you learn some kind of scientific truth about the human being. You study the humanities so that you aren't naive, and waste the investment everybody's put into you.

  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:20PM (#46894577) Homepage Journal

    it's not about critical thinking, it's about figuring out the personal beliefs of the professor, because in many cases your grade depends on not offending those beliefs.

    s/professor/boss/ and s/grade/continued employment/

    Pretty good preparation for the world of work, no?

  • by xeno (2667) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:22PM (#46894601)

    Yes. THIS.

    The single biggest thing that renders useless an otherwise-great STEM education is the lack of ability to write well.

    Legion are the devs who string together many words, but forget to have a verb or period at the end. Innumerable are the IT wonks who can't scrape together a coherent and concise summary of 1000-page compliance reports. I swear, the collective plural noun for some of the security analysts at work is "a shimmer of tin foil hats" or "a fuckery of subjectivism" ...and they don't even understand the nature of the criticism.

    Can I *PLEASE* have a critical thinker and good writer in the house???? Anyone??

    Science does no good if you cannot express a coherent hypothesis, imagine a threshold, or string together a sequence of actual actions for testing. In medicine this costs lives.
    Technology is an interchange, it does no good if you cannot listen to a problem, and express understanding back. At this moment in software, we're awash in UX implementations that aren't traceable to a functional problem.
    Engineering compounds the problem later without functional expression and holistic and temporal views. Ask a Boeing maintenance tech about the plethora of could-have-been-shared 1-off components in 20-40 year old jets.
    Math does no good if you cannot draw a picture. Ask the Morton Thiokol guys about their reports on the o-rings on the space shuttle.

    Among other "humanities" like history and writing/composition, Tufte [edwardtufte.com] ought to be mandatory for high-school seniors in a STEM program.

  • by readin (838620) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @06:58PM (#46895423)

    A combination of ego and condescension. You may have taken humanities courses, but you did not gain humanity.

    So it seems humanities courses aren't very useful.

  • by funwithBSD (245349) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @07:27PM (#46895611)

    "The problem with humanities majors is not that they can't communicate, but that they have nothing interesting to say."

    My colleagues disagree, my technology presentations are well attended inside IBM. In part because I throw in little history tidbits or even where some words come from, both technical and non-technical.

    A good example is when I talk about archaic standards preventing progress, like the size of a Roman wheel cart setting the size of train tracks and roads. (Not strictly true, but it is a good story) Or how market momentum creates atrocities like the QWERTY keyboard. (or the IBM PC....)
    Both illustrate the need to work from a clean board to ensure we are not architect-ing solutions because "that is the way we do it here at IBM". And we do a lot of that, because template reuse is so efficient, but hinders innovation.

    And the humanities is a broad subject, covering but not limited to: art, philosophy, history, and literature. If they have nothing you find interesting to listen to in those subjects, you may be the close minded one.

  • by roman_mir (125474) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @09:46PM (#46896389) Homepage Journal

    So just hoh daft are you, not seeing clearly that it is Keynesian socialist crap that destroyed the economy? That is the mainstream cralp, government approved and shrink wrapped by these humanity profs for your consumption. Last time USA had real economics was before Sherman act was used for the first time and private property rights were destroyed.

  • by fredprado (2569351) on Friday May 02, 2014 @02:40AM (#46897333)
    In my experience the most arrogance come from people in humanities. They are arrogant to the extreme about what they know and about what they thing they don't need to know even more.

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