One sleepy morning during my sophomore year of high school, my teacher posed a question to the class that has lingered in the back of my mind ever since: “Which are more valuable to society: the sciences or the arts?”

I remember most of the kids in my class answered science without hesitation. I had much more trouble producing an answer, but I settled on arts partially to be devil’s advocate and partially because I couldn’t imagine a world without art or music or books.

Last week, I attended Dick Costolo’s talk about leadership and liberal arts, which reminded me of this age-old argument. Costolo, former CEO of Twitter and a University of Michigan LSA computer science alum, pinpointed exactly how I feel about the role of humanities in education.

As a student who has a deep interest in both biology and English, I’ve found that I straddle a gray area few students choose to traverse. Even though I’m passionate about both the sciences and the arts, I’ve had trouble articulating to my peers exactly why I value taking humanities courses (except for the fact that writing well is an important skill, or that I personally like how the two disciplines exercise different parts of my brain, and that I’d be bored if I only took science and math classes).

Many of my STEM-focused peers lament the humanities distribution requirements they have to fulfill for graduation. These courses seem to eat up valuable credits that could be used to take another science or math course, one that teaches skills more pertinent to their major or desired career. But when students studying the humanities lament the science distribution requirement, they’re met with incredulity that they would spurn such “essential” topics in education.

While Costolo implored students to take computer science courses due to their applicability in the global economy, he also noted that nearly every discipline — sciences and humanities alike — teaches students critical thinking skills. He argued that what sets the critical thinking in humanities subjects apart from that in STEM subjects is that they teach us what to think about.

That is, the critical thinking in the humanities requires the consideration of multiple perspectives and factors that contextualize a problem before attempting to solve it.

In the science and math classes I’ve taken throughout my schooling, I’ve found little room for varying perspectives or methods in coursework. Sure, there may be several approaches to a given problem, but thought processes are often restricted by the single correct answer that lies at the end of each question. Much of the context of science is stripped in practice — we’re usually forced to work within a set of controls or a finite set of mathematical theorems.

Of course, science has room for conceptual and abstract discussions, but it still lacks the interpersonal aspect integral to thought in the humanities. And these interpersonal skills often are more important in a career than technical skills.

The humanities courses I’ve taken encourage the accumulation of disparate viewpoints in conversation to strengthen a student’s interpersonal skills. More often than not, it’s perfectly OK if a student takes away something different from a text than the next student, so long as they derive their reasoning from a relevant source. The humanities force students to sift through countless details to find what’s important, to become adept listeners, to consider experiences outside their own.

We need the humanities to serve as a liaison between the world of science and the world of human interaction, to check the power of science and to force the scientific world to consider the ethical and interpersonal ramifications of scientific advancements. Knowing how to draw a curved-arrow mechanism for a bimolecular substitution reaction cannot teach a doctor to empathize with patients of different backgrounds than their own. Knowing how to take the line integral of a function cannot help engineers develop technologies that consider a community’s needs.

If we study science for science’s sake alone, we run the risk of endangering humanity itself. Life-prolonging medications, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering are all significant marks of human achievement, but if used with the wrong intentions, they most certainly have the potential to destroy societies and render life intolerable. The good science can do for us resides in our consideration of how these developments will shape human life and interpersonal interactions in the long term — and this is simply not something taught in most STEM courses.

Yet students don’t flock to STEM courses purely out of interest, but rather pragmatic concerns. College, after all, is a financial investment, and it certainly is reasonable to want a return on that investment. There is no dearth of jobs in STEM fields, and often these fields lead to lucrative careers — ones that can pay off college debt and allow students to earn comfortable livings post-graduation.

But for students to boil down which classes they take to the market value of the skills taught, they forgo classes that can teach them empathy or ethics or effective communication — skills that possess value that has no price. Costolo — who made Twitter the booming social media company it is today — emphasized that his company would not have been as successful as it is without the skills he learned from the humanities courses he studied here at the University.  

Society will perpetually juggle the influences of the sciences and the arts in our everyday lives. Students can — and should — choose the field that makes them burn with passion, but they cannot dismiss the interconnectedness of the sciences and the arts and the value that each can contribute to their education, their career and their character.

Life, after all, is so much more than a discrete set of scientific and mathematical truths.

Rebecca Tarnopol can be reached at tarnopol@umich.edu.

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