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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 funwithBSD (245349) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:02PM (#46893715)

    Then earned my IT degree later in life. Hard to eat on a Humanities degree salary.

    Still, I can communicate and write better than 90% of my peers, and that gives me a major advantage over them.

    Being able to communicate between people is as important as being able to enable communication between two machines.

  • by Nutria (679911) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:28PM (#46894001)

    is that while Math majors know Shakespeare, English majors do not know Euclid.

    (This is not originally my idea.)

  • by frisket (149522) <peter@@@silmaril...ie> on Thursday May 01, 2014 @06:10PM (#46894477) Homepage

    What other essential knowledge or skills should we add to this imaginary 'toolbox'?

    One that sets many apart: learn to communicate in another language.

  • by Stormy Dragon (800799) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @06:28PM (#46894671) Homepage

    Indeed. Note conversely that while most STEM majors take a lot of humanities classes, humanities majors rarely must take more than a couple of STEM classes.

    Why is it that while being illiterate is generally considered shameful in our society, people have absolutely no qualms flaunting their innumeracy?

  • by timholman (71886) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @08:34PM (#46895667)

    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??

    You are absolutely correct. Most people with STEM backgrounds cannot write a coherent paragraph or make a coherent presentation. But guess what? The same is true with most humanities majors.

    I used to serve on a faculty committee that evaluated essays for the entire university. As a group, we would read a short essay, grade it, and determine if the student needed to take remedial composition courses before graduation.

    I never saw any significant correlation between a particular major and writing skill. The good, mediocre, and bad writers were pretty much spread across the entire student body.

    The one correlation I've observed in my career is this: good writers universally tend to be good readers. They read for pleasure, and read a wide variety of books. Those also tend to be exactly the people who have good critical thinking skills, because they've had the voices of hundreds or thousands of different authors in their heads all their lives. That exposure to so many different viewpoints is absolutely critical.

    If you want to make people better writers, then make them better readers. That is the hard part, and there is no simple solution.

  • by funwithBSD (245349) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @09:20PM (#46895965)

    I got a "D" on an art paper once. or would have.
    The subject was declared to be "What is Art?" (i know, I know, but that is what the prof wanted)

    Most everyone got into esthetics, beauty, meaning, and such qualities.

    I put forth the idea that Art was boiled down to two requirements:

    1. It must be an Artifact, literally "made with hands"
    2. It must speak to us something about the human condition

    That was his initial grade. Then he thought about it. He couldn't reconcile why the idea offended him. So he gave it to his brother to read.
    His brother was in the CS field. Electrical engineer and architect I think.

    "He has it right. He cut all your BS out of it and got it down to two ideals, and he is dead on. You just don't like it."

    I got an A+, and he submitted my paper for a publication. (rejected of course, they were probably just as insulted)

It is better to give than to lend, and it costs about the same.

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