(This essay was originally published abridged in print as “Remember that the Humanities Keep Us Human,” by Education Week, January 7, 2015.)
President Obama’s recent announcement of an additional $28 million to bolster STEM teachers is great news and reminds me of my passion for science during those heady days of the Kennedy “Camelot” when the president announced the goal of reaching the moon. In a speech before a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, he said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project…will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important…and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
During those days, the Cold War—the state of tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—was in full swing. Several years before in 1957, the Soviets had leapt out in front us in the space race with the launching of Sputnik. There were fears of a “missile gap” by which the Soviets, leading the U.S. in missile technology, could intimidate, coerce, and—at worse—attack us with nuclear missiles, and we could not defend ourselves. Fallout shelters were all the rage.
Though the STEM acronym did not exist at the time, I was STEM through and through: Sputnik, Telstar, missiles, spaceships, those great missile-like fins on the ‘57 Chevy and the ‘59 Cadillac, and atom-smashing accelerators. Hollywood gave us all those great, corny, “B” science fiction movies. I was all in.
The president’s Educate to Innovate program is now five-years old. When Obama launched it on November 23, 2009, he described it as “a nationwide effort to help reach the goal this administration has set: moving to the top in science and math education in the next decade.” The White House has portrayed it as “an all-hands-on-deck campaign to help more girls and boys be inspired to excel in science, technology, engineering , and math (STEM) subjects.” The program has sought a synergistic effort, using the combined forces of government, education leaders, foundations, companies, non-profits, and scientific and technology professionals. Its major components have included such initiatives as the 100kin10 (seeking to prepare 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over the next decade), Change the Equation (a coalition of CEOs committed to expanding STEM programs to more than 1 million students by 2016), and Discovery Communications (launching a new show next year to inspire students in STEM fields, highlighting “All –American makers”). Even though I chose not to become a scientist, I am all for this.
However, caution is needed here, a caution against imbalance. In our rush to emphasize the empirical sciences, we must be careful not to reduce too much the resources devoted to the Humanities, the mix of subjects normally including the language arts, history, philosophy, religion, and the visual and performing arts. (STEM in recent years has, in some circles, morphed to STEAM, integrating the visual and performing arts.) Science and technology have given us wondrous benefits and conveniences. I can imagine the relief in back pain when 5,500 years ago we invented the wheel. I relish the ability to communicate with ease with my friends in Germany or Skype with my grandchildren far away. Nonetheless, we should not place STEM on a pedestal too high. It brought us the wheel, the polio vaccine, and the Internet; it also brought us napalm, cluster bombs, and the atomic bomb.
STEM can give us the “what and why” of the physical universe, but not the “ought.” Beyond the molecules, fractions, and scientific laws that govern the physical universe, the Humanities, collectively, teach us about “human-ness” and our relationships with each other. They help us connect with each other, understand each other, and cooperate rather than conflict with each other. As the world gets smaller and as we are forced to share more of its fewer resources, it is the Humanities along with the social sciences that will help us cooperate, coexist, continue, and even flourish rather than cancel each other.
We need the language arts. When I decided in 10th grade to study German, little did I know that almost thirty years later, I would be using German to interview former communists of the East German army about German Unification (1990). As anyone who understands a foreign language appreciates, actually living in another language—rather than relying on translations–gives one a much richer and comprehensive understanding of that people, a larger and more nuanced window into the world of that society.
We need English and literature so that we can see and employ the beauty and utility of the spoken, recited, sung, and written word. We cannot think without words. The more sophisticated our vocabulary; the more sophisticated and subtle our thoughts, especially important as we increasingly rely on clipped and mangled English in the digital world. Also through reading about other humans, we can learn more of ourselves. Finally, in my first career as a professional Army officer, during the challenging times I faced, it was not the First Law of Thermodynamics or Newton’s Second Law of Motion that sustained me. It was Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Frost.
We need history. The historical method teaches us how to weigh carefully the credibility and reliability of the sources from which we derive our information and hence our picture of reality. Though I strongly disliked all the “curricular requirements” faceless, unnamed but clearly highly-credentialed educators from the College Board heaped on me as an AP history teacher, I appreciated how these forced me to teach my students such essentials as the difficulties of pursuing knowledge and causality in history compared to the STEM subjects. Crucial is also the skill of patiently and thoroughly asking questions—before the first word of the document is read—about the creator of the document (or visual).
We need philosophy and ethics. More here than in the other Humanities, especially for students who prefer rationality and linearity, is where we can learn to deal with ambiguity and irrationality, where we can grapple with essential questions which have no right answers. In my “War & Morality” course, we deal with such questions as: When is it right to use violence against other human beings? Who is to judge whether there is “just cause” to begin a war? How many alternatives must a state attempt before it is using violence truly as a “last resort”? My students role-play a post-World War II commission, examining whether the British-American fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945 was a war crime. We end the course with the political, military, legal, and finally ethical implications of using drones in warfare. Moreover, in a world where so much emphasis is placed on “metrics” to measure, these subjects can force us to deal with factors that resist quantitative measurement: trust in Ferguson, Missouri; mistrust with Iran; the fundamentalism and hatred of ISIS.
And finally, there is religion. Whether one is a believer or non-believer, understanding the history of the world’s major religions, their role in societies, and their influence in shaping our world today is crucial to any educated person and engaged citizen. Religion also can give us words and ideas for our celebrations as well as for our commemorations and memorials.
After a Western Civilization lesson on the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, one of my Chinese remained after class. She was curious about Jesus Christ and the broader subject of religion and society. I asked her about religion in China. She indicated that she was never really taught religion, and followed by saying that if there was any “religion” in Chinese education, it would be “science.”
In ancient Greece even wealthy, aristocratic non-Greeks would journey to the famous Oracle at Delphi to seek guidance on their most pressing questions. One of the most common responses the oracle gave was: Meden Agan (Moderation in all things.) STEM must be complemented with an ample ration of the Humanities rather than displace it. Giving too much emphasis to STEM may cause us to lose too much of our HUMAN-ness.