STEM, humanities, and art

The arts and humanities are under assault. This is not new, but the intensity has significantly increased. Many states, my own included, are actively encouraging universities, my own included, to increase the number of so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates. The rationale is that STEM disciplines lead to better (i.e. higher paying) jobs and will benefit society and the economy with more STEM-associated cures, gadgets, and technologies. In short, according to many of our leaders, life is better with STEM.

STEM-centric thought starts at the earliest ages. We frequently worry about poor scores on standardized tests in K-12, poor preparation in math and science, and a general lack of training for our children to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s global economy. All of this is true and potentially very troublesome, but what is the solution?

C. elegans wild-type (N2) hermaphrodites.  The larger worms are just over 1-mm long and have 959 cells.  They grow from fertilized egg to reproducing adult in about 3.5 days.

C. elegans wild-type (N2) hermaphrodites. The larger worms are just over 1-mm long and have 959 cells. They grow from fertilized egg to reproducing adult in about 3.5 days.

I love science. As a biochemistry professor at a major research university, I understand the importance of STEM, both in preparing graduate students and postdoctoral scientists but also in the value to society. I hope that some of my discoveries will lead to new medicine or diagnostics, but as I describe below, this is not why I love science.

I also love art. In subsequent blogs I will tell you about why it is so important to me, but I’ll give you a sneak preview: my year as an art major. I love music, literature, dance, history, language, and philosophy. One of my most important early influences was Lewis Thomas, a great medical doctor/scientist/lover of art and humanities/writer. I highly recommend his books to anyone. If I were to compare the importance and value to me of, for example, Bach’s cello suites and my iPad, Bach would win! I realize that comparisons between Bach and an iPad is like comparing apples to oranges; they both give my life added value and I would like to have both in my life.

iPad 2 cover with Caenorhabditis elegans.

iPad 2 cover with Caenorhabditis elegans.

The problem with the current push for STEM to the exclusion of arts and humanities is that it really does compare apples and oranges, and in this case the high tech apples of the world win. Where in our curricula are we educating our next Bach or Van Gogh or Toni Morrison or Patti Smith? These are the type of people that make life rich, but it is rare to hear the call from education administrators or politicians that we need more artists or scholars in the humanities. We are concerned about cures for cancer, outsourcing iPads, or making new apps, but we are taking it for granted that artistic creativity, literature, history, and music will take care of themselves. Or maybe as a society we are just lowering the value the arts and humanities into obsolescence, and future generations won’t need great music, art, and literature because they haven’t learned about these things in their STEM curricula anyway.

The current push for more STEM is not only a threat to the arts and humanities, but in my opinion is also a threat to science. I went into science, because I was fascinated by learning about how things worked. My interests started rather late in life when I realized in an organic chemistry class that I was enjoying learning about reaction mechanisms, which make all chemical reactions understandable with a relatively few general principals. I grew to love biology, and my interests for many years now have been the chemistry of life. I would be pleased to discover a cure for cancer, but the reason I am a scientist is to learn about how things work. In my case, we are discovering how small worms communicate with chemicals and how they change their behavior according to external conditions. If we are lucky, this work might lead to the discovery of new ways to control parasitic infections, which cause problems for billions of people, domestic animals, and crops. However, the real reason we study them is that it is a fascinating chemical/biological story that improves our overall understanding of how things work.

There is a difference between going into science wanting to figure out how things work and wanting to get a good job or improving America’s competitiveness. The best science is driven by curiosity about the world. As an example, about 40-50 years ago Bob Horvitz and John Sulston were studying the development of a worm. They followed every single cell division from a fertilized egg to an adult animal with 959 cells. They were curious about how this worked, and in the process they discovered that some cells always die. They found genes that are responsible for the cell death, and it turns out that these same genes are involved in many human cancers (they don’t kill cells when they should). Thus, curiosity about how a simple little worm develops from an egg to an adult led to the discovery of genes that are important for all animals and are often involved in human cancer. They got the Nobel Prize for this work, but I can be quite certain that they did not start it because of the prospects of getting a good job or with the goal of curing cancer. This is how science works. It is a creative process, much like art, music, and literature. We need to get kids interested in science because it is their passion, not because it will get them a good job.

Instead of STEM vs humanities, we should be focusing our educational resources on helping our children to discover their passion. Maybe that will lead to a better iPad or a cure for cancer, but it might also lead to wonderful new music or art that will enrich our lives. Or we might learn more about how little worms talk to each other…

4 responses

  1. Art — I would strongly encourage you to send this in to the Gainesville Sun as a “Speaking out” commentary. In doing so, I would edit it, only slightly, but I think it is a timely and well said piece. I would be happy to work on edits with you —

  2. Hear, hear! Great having an opportunity to chat yesterday, and I very much enjoyed this post. Here’s a link to the STEM to STEAM movement I mentioned, which is being championed by RISD – they’re working with Americans for the Arts to nurture a bipartisan STEM to STEAM Caucus that has more than 50 reps so far… they have an active email campaign and petition that could be a potential call to action for a commentary piece: http://stemtosteam.org/

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