Opinion: The STEM Debate | Vol. 2 / No. 29.2

We need campfires and stories. Original photo: Flickr user Tristan Schmurr, CC BY 2.0 (text added)
We need campfires and stories. Original photo: Flickr user Tristan Schmurr, CC BY 2.0 (text added)

There’s a debate in educational circles that seems to appear so frequently that merely describing it as “perennial” seems less accurate than calling it “constant.” The gist of the debate is whether or not education, higher education especially, ought to be “practical.” But practical for whom, and to what end?

The debate about whether we should be promoting “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields over the humanities and fine arts seems rooted in a kind of economic utilitarianism. It asks the question, as Florida Governor and amateur Bat Boy impersonator Rick Scott puts it: “Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology?” (He doesn’t, by the way.)

The point is, there are a lot of people out there who think that if you’re not advancing science and technology — if you’re not programming trading algorithms, curing cancer, or making the next iPhone — you’re not doing anything worthwhile.

[As a brief aside, the funniest part of this is, of course, that it tends to come out of the mouths of politicians whose training in STEM fields is either nonexistent or so corrupted by money as to be worthless. In the 114th Congress there’s “one physicist, one microbiologist, one chemist, and eight engineers (all in the House, with the exception of one Senator who is an engineer).” That’s 11 out of 538 people (there were three vacant seats in the House when the report was issued). And while that definitely needs to change, it’s not my point.]

My point is this: if you’re trying to be utilitarian, you’re doing it wrong.

Loosely defined, utilitarianism (at least, according to Bentham) seeks “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” But it’s that poorly defined “good” that’s tended to stump philosophers and utopianists alike.

It may seem strange to hear this from a semi-professional hikikomori running a science and technology blog, but I think they’ve got it wrong. Yes, we definitely need a strong STEM-educated population, and certainly will do going forward: as the last few Planet Money podcasts have articulated rather well, the Luddites had a point: technology ever advances, and you can either be the person that knows how to run it or the person whose job it takes.

But as the number of humans necessary to run the economy reduces — estimates are in the millions of jobs that will be lost to self-driving cars alone — it forces us to ask a question: what do we do with all that extra time? Setting aside that people need money to live (“If you build a robot to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?”) what do we do with all the people-hours left over? Clay Shirky says we should use that “cognitive surplus” to create, rather than consume, but it all boils down to those two things: creation and consumption.

Creation and consumption are, I would argue, the two cultural acts, that is to say they’re the two ways in which we interact with human culture(s). It’s not one or the other — often we do both simultaneously — but together they’re the root of a social economy as much as a monetary one. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts physical needs at the bottom and philosophical ones at the top, but they’re all part of the same idea. Human culture is about creation and consumption, and focusing solely on advancing the physical lives of humanity — the creation and consumption of things — is only part of what makes us whole.

Things are STEM’s specialty: buildings, machines, medicines, bodies, describing the physical world itself. It’s not the entirety of STEM, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s what STEM subjects are uniquely good at: helping us interact with the physical world. This is what they tend to mean by “practical.” It is immensely valuable — to our quality of life as well as its quantity — but emphasizing them at the expense of (or even to the exclusion of) arts and humanities is a mistake. The humanities’ and arts’ specialty is evaluation and interpretation. As the old joke goes, “science will tell you how to make T-Rex, the humanities will tell you why that might not be a great idea.”

Put a little differently: a 4k tv is a wonderful thing, especially when you have the time to watch it, but only so long as you have something to watch on it.

This isn’t to say that science can’t engage the heart — I do a happy dance at the end of every successful SpaceX launch; I write a science and technology blog for fun — but culture, human culture, is more than its technological innovations. It’s more than its ability to survive the next major threat, more than increasing its lifespan and conquering its interplanetary neighbours. If we want to keep the economy of ideas going, to remain fully what we are as self-aware explorers of ourselves as well as the world, then each generation needs to raise the next to be content creators and content consumers.

I teach English at the college level. Sometimes that means teaching non-majors how to read a novel or screenplay and get more out of it than just the surface-level enjoyment of plot and character. Sometimes it means realizing how much of the reading process is self-generated, how much of what you’re reading is actually a text reflecting the reader back at herself. Sometimes it means teaching student when to use “its” or “it’s,” or when to use “there,” “they’re,” or “their.” But all of it is about the creation and consumption of culture, how to interact more meaningfully with human ideas as both a consumer and a creator.

Creation and consumption, in the abstract, are what take us from individuals to a global society. If consciousness is the ability to self-inquire, then society is consciousness writ large. Science, technology, engineering, math, these things keep us alive. They teach us about our place in the universe. They let us explore it in new and exciting ways. But things like Shakespeare — hell, things like “House of Cards” and “Call the Midwife” — tell us about ourselves in ways that science doesn’t. The latest Jim Butcher novel or Taylor Swift song, too: these things are a part of who we are.

I’m not under any illusion that this post is going to end the debate, but after years of hearing from both sides, this is where I think I stand. “The greatest good for the greatest number of people” means keeping and valuing the humanities and arts as equals to the STEM fields, even if they aren’t as “practical,” because they tell us who we are, and let us enjoy ourselves along the way.

After all, you’re going to need something to do in that self-driving car, aren’t you?


Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science and skepticism here at This Week In Tomorrow.