Humanities vs. STEM

Surprise, surprise, I am a STEM student. Many of you already know this but let me say it again. I spent 4.5 years at the university working towards my Masters in Industrial Engineering. While I don’t identify so much with the Industrial (read business) part of my degree, I feel more at home in the engineering department. My friend Tyler, who is an English graduate wrote this post about Creativity in STEM yesterday and since his blog doesn’t have a freaking comment section, I have to write a counter post because 140 characters on Twitter is hardly enough to adequately respond to his post. So go on, read it. I’ll wait for you to come back when you’re finished.

Okay. I hope you all read his post by now because otherwise you’re probably a bit lost. Moving on then. First of all, this is based off my German experience, universities work a bit differently here as they do in the US. We mostly don’t pay student fees and if we do, they are really low. (I know the funding he talks about is probably not from fees but whatever.) While I studied it was 500€ per semester. No biggie. I am familiar with the whole debate about not having enough STEM students because we’re told this constantly over here as well. The thing is, there aren’t enough engineers, mathematicians and physicists to satisfy demand. It’s true. And just because we’re told there is a high demand doesn’t mean more people start studying these subjects because to most, maths are gross and physics stupid and what do you need the shit for anyway, right? Wrong! As far as I know, there isn’t a huge increase in STEM students over here just because we’re told to study it.

The reason STEM graduates are paid more is simple economics: We have a high demand of STEM folks but not enough to satisfy demand so the companies that need them are in competition with each other trying to secure their supply. On the other hand we have an abundance of humanities graduates with only few job opportunities for them (that being in traditional humanities fields unlike you’re an oddity like Tyler) so of course the employers can afford to not offer a lot of money for their employees because there sure is one who will work for the money because it beats being unemployed. 

I also don’t know anything about how departments are funded but what I do know from my studies is that the money my engineering department got wasn’t a lot either. Most of the cool things they have, they finance through third party financing which means they actually do projects for the free market. You need a new laser because the old one is broken? Well, don’t expect the university to pay for it. Go out and find a company that pays you for your consulting or development support.

Of course I can only speak for myself and the people I studied with but we all can write complete sentences. Complicated sentences. Hell, I can do so even in two different languages! And I can’t help but wonder if maybe something is fundamentally broken with the American school system if your engineering students can’t express themselves in words because as I understand it, we engineers actually have lots of stuff to explain. Sure, we prefer to use a diagram whenever possible because it can oftentimes explain something so much better than 50 words or even more could do and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I may not be able to analyse my way through a poem but that’s mostly because a lot of it seems highly speculative and subjective to me whereas maths and physics rely on constants and logic that I can handle and understand. They’re bound to empirical data, things I can actually grasp, rerun and still get the same results. I can measure the noise of a machine at one place and even though the surroundings may be completely different, still get the same results if you know what kind of measuring system to use. It’s amazing.

Water at see level boils at 100°C while it freezes at 0°C.
Everything in this world is made up of atoms. Protons and neutrons. A whole bunch of different quarks. Everything is moving, always. Until you hit 0K.

I never fully mastered the art of where to put a comma or when to use a semicolon. Especially not in English as we were never taught so and German is confusing on so many levels. But having studied humanities would not have magically made me know how to either. I agree that we all should have broad studies, just because I studied engineering doesn’t mean I have to limit myself to that though. And from what I can tell, Tyler didn’t so either. Even though he has an English degree, he works in STEM but I don’t think this makes him any better equipped to handle life per se. Just as I am not better equipped because I studied engineering. I think of it as two different ways of looking at the same problem.

And now I think I lost my train of though some place but hey, this thing is almost at 1,000 words. So. Much. Word. Vomit. (I’m sorry.) What I actually wanted to say is, I didn’t feel rightly represented by Tyler’s post and the assumption that physics and maths limit your thinking in a way humanities do not. I just don’t feel that. I am also plenty silly and creative.

A while ago I did write a post about Women in STEM because despite this being 2014 and us females being told for YEARS that we should get into STEM, there are still not enough of us around. I still work in a field (and a company) dominated by men. Out of the 12 engineers there are only 3 women, myself included. There needs to be something done about this. And I do believe the root of all evil lies in our early education an upbringings. We’re being type cast, boys do this, girls do that. You get a doll while you get a truck for christmas. Hey, you show promise in the field of STEM so focus exclusively on that. Ew, maths sounds difficult, let me hide in my books. Like Virginia Woolf said many years ago in her famous essay A Room of One’s Own, we should just all forget about sexes to be true and great writers. Why not extend that thought? While talents should be supported, they should not be a way of pushing a person into a corner.

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  • Tyler

    Oh, it certainly doesn’t apply to every STEM student. Just that there
    were, in my experience, a disproportionate number of them who had
    difficulty with self-expression. I suspect, now having interacted with
    many STEM workers outside of that microcosm, the problem is more
    widespread than only my experience.

    And it isn’t also that STEM people can’t function. It’s that many never took the humanities seriously, which leaves them with a deficiency in the way they process information. Many may not have had much in university, but maybe they had excellent high school teachers. Some may have had crappy humanities teachers all along. Some of them just may not be able to connect with the subject matter. AND ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE OKAY.

    But there’s a very clear and present condescension among a large majority of the STEM world to people, like me, who studied the humanities, but the reason for that is illogical at best. A broad education offers more ways to break down a problem. You can’t get too broad, obviously, as then you’d have other deficiencies, but there’s no reason a STEM degree program cannot also emphasize critical thinking outside the mathematics and physics of a situation. It’s another tool, and one that is far too often thrown out as unimportant or irrelevant.

    • Wilhelmina Upton

      Well, the only program I am condescending towards is Business Administration because all they can do is talk themselves up. And there are far too many of them.

      I don’t look down upon English majors and as far as I have experienced neither have my fellow students or the people I work with. Of course I make fun of those that can dance their names but we engineers are also the butt of a lot of jokes.

      I’m sorry, I just feel like you’re telling me I’m not as creative and thinking outside the box as I should be and that doesn’t sit right with me. You may not be saying this about me personally but I take it that way for some stupid reason.

      • Tyler

        YOU are in the camp that CAN abstract problems out-of-bounds. Clearly, the fact that you were able to construct a novel is proof of this.

        • Wilhelmina Upton

          Well, you haven’t read it yet. I get that this is your experience only mine is very different.

          • Tyler

            In the end, I <3 everyone and think the whole world would be better if they'd study literature. Any literature. Preferably from as many cultures as possible.

            But, then, I'm a little partial ;)

          • Wilhelmina Upton

            While I sit here wishing I could study ALL THE THINGS!! Coincidentally there is a post in my drafts about just that. I wish I could spend my life just studying. Physical Anthropology, literature, maths and so on. I still <3 you, don't worry.

  • Clément Polge

    Yeah his post was surprising to me too, because in our time almost NOBODY just does science in their own little corner shunning off the rest of the world. It exists, of course, but those are extremely rare and exceptionnal people.

    For us “regular” (and I’m using that loosely, because the “regular” I have class with are freakin’ genuises) though, it’s not enough to get a result, we need to be able to explain our reasoning.

    And it’s not even just at a high level, we have exams too, and results don’t mean shit if you can’t explain how you got there. We don’t just have multiple choices quizz where we tick the right answer.

    It probably goes down as we move away from the most “structured” science (maths, physics, chemistry), because it gets less about reasoning on the established and trying to push things further than trying to develop your own theory, but as far as I’ve seen, explaining things is an important part of our studies.

    Especially since articles are submitted to peer review before being published…

    • Tyler

      It clearly doesn’t apply to everyone. And, honestly, I think the attitude is more prevalent in the T and E areas than the S or M.

      But it isn’t a condemnation of STEM or the people who study it. It’s a condemnation of trying to say that a whole swath of academia is irrelevant or unimportant. For me, it’s English because I speak English. The language could be substituted for French language and literature or German language and Literature.

      The point is, ignoring a whole group of study, which until very recently was considered to be vitally important to ANY form of education, is short-sighted.

      I just wanted to offer the perspectives gained from studying things non-STEM.

      • Wilhelmina Upton

        Well I have not made the experience that Humanities suddenly became irrelevant because naturally they aren’t.

        • Tyler

          Again, it isn’t YOU in particular. It’s a widespread opinion, at least in American academia.

      • Clément Polge

        Oh yeah, I don’t know much about T&E, but I’m willing to believe that about them: I know people who’ve been in these things and they don’t say only nice things about who they’ve met there.

        Us S&M people are way more focused on rules.

        I do agree with the short-sightedness of society who tend to be “SCIENCE ! SCIEEEEEENCE !!!!!!!!!!!!1”, it’s the truth of our time, it’ll pass, and then we’ll realise that other stuff matters, and so on and so forth. It’s a cycle.

    • Wilhelmina Upton

      Well, I read a couple of articles last year in IEEE (a pretty prestigious journal) that were so terrible especially the English that even I was correcting it in my head. Most of those papers came from China though.
      It surprised me though because the way I know it, papers or articles are highly peer reviewed and it takes ages to get some of them published.

  • Reading this definitely gave me a more complex perspective on Humanities vs STEM discourse. I’m glad you brought up the complexities behind gendered disparities in STEM field. Even though I didn’t major in any of the STEM fields, I couldn’t agree more with the fact that one’s upbringing could affect the trajectory of his/her career path. It’s funny how I, a Music Composition major, was raised by two STEM-heavy parents. Of course, I am really hoping that I don’t regret my choice because I cannot guarantee that I’ll be able to compose on commissions. It’s a complicated issue. :/

    • Wilhelmina Upton

      Oh yes, it is really complicated but isn’t that the case for every creative type? My best friend studies old music and does composing of his own as well so I’m no stranger to that.

      While personal preferences do play a key role, upbringing is also a big issue in my opinion. For me, it was mostly my uncle who fostered my technical education at an early age, giving me lots of Lego and other such things and I loved it.

  • STEM_Advocate

    Being a recent engineering graduate I am obviously partial,
    but I have some logic too. I think what annoyed me the most about your friend’s post was the following opinion:

    “[T]hat’s what STEM looks like to me: creativity bounded. Engineers are bounded by physics, mathematicians are bounded by . . . whatever rules mathematicians are bounded by. (Hey. I did admit to being bad at math).”

    I get tired of being labeled as simple minded just because I studied something that appears less creative. If anything engineering opens up the possibility for more creativity. You start seeing the amazing interactions and phenomena going on all around you, both on a large and small scale. Control systems, signal processing, electronics, wave propogation (to name some things in my field) are all around us every day in everything we interact with. I think the real problem is how math is portrayed in elementary education. Who the hell cares if some dude bought 76 watermelons and then ate 32 of them? Why not teach kids to see the math involved in everything around them? Also, why is being “bad at math” an excuse? You’re not bad it you just need practice. Yes, some people may have more of an aptitude but it’s by and large a learned skill that takes a good deal of effort, just like language. What if I were to tell you that I’m “just not an English person” and therefor it’s ok for me to just pay it lip service and be illiterate for the rest of my life? Ok rant over, that was really bugging me.

    Here’s a comic from Zen Pencils that perfectly summarizes my opinion:

    • Wilhelmina Upton

      Only now getting to this comment, sorry. Thanks for taking the time to visit my blog and also write such a long comment. Yes, I think that being bad at math is not an excuse, or shouldn’t be. And even though math and physics have to follow certain rules and natural constants and whatnot, I don’t think that makes us less creative. Actually, science has taught me to be even more amazed by the things around me because when you understand how things are created/made up of, you begin to truly see how crazy it all is. THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS!!