The STEM/Humanities Dichotomy is BS

Published: 2021-08-29
Tagged: rants education

I cringe whenever the STEM/Humanities dichotomy comes up. You know, stuff like "Let's invest in STEM education" or "I was never good with numbers" or "liberal art degrees are useless." Unfortunately, this seems to be a popular, deeply embedded meme in the US/EU culturespace that I inhabit. But there's something wrong with this idea.

First, it often acts as a curiosity stopper. Like, if you're in camp STEM and someone asks you about stuff like plays or poetry, there's some social pressure to shake your head, point at the graphing calculator in your pocket, and say "I've never been able to wrap my head around that." But in reality, all complex things can be split into smaller and smaller chunks until the chunks become understandable. What's more, the basics of a domain can be picked up in a manner of hours or days, so maybe you won't become a playwright, but you'll understand enough to compare and explore the world of theatre.

Second, it feels as if this dichotomy is used for gate-keeping. It's why people roll their eyes or make snide remarks when an outsider dares to come into their territory. It's the art critic sighing when they see a group of CompSci students enter the gallery. It's the shop class teacher massaging their temples when they realize their class is full of arts students. This type of gate-keeping actually has a fancy name now: epistemic trespassing, which is all about posting "Keep Out" signs to get those darn kids off your pure and beautiful lawn.

Finally, there's the problem that reality is not organized according to academic departments. Universities are structured the way they are because they evolved to solve specific problems like conducting research or educating students. But there are no stone tablets orbiting the sun saying that the epistemic boundaries set by universities are cosmic truths. It's merely a way of organizing large groups of people into somewhat legible structures with a goal in mind. Nothing more.

Speaking from experience, there's a lot of human thought that goes into building software. It may not seem so from the lingo or the various processes engineers follow, but at the end of the day, all software is built to satisfy human needs. Now, whether those humans are consumers, coworkers, or your boss is a different question, but my point is that software boils down to "What can I build to satisfy need X?"–or, in other words, empathy.

At the risk of trespassing, I imagine that it works the same way for anyone who considers themself in the humanities group. I've heard they have systems and techniques and that everyone is constantly experimenting and compiling these into strategies to develop art. My gut tells me this must be true because when I see a good movie scene, I can't help but think that everyone who wrote, planned, and filmed it must have practiced a ton of skills in systematic ways–it's just too good to be the result of luck or finicky genius.

Now, I'm not saying that everyone is morally obligated to put in maximum effort into every field of knowledge they encounter. We all have preferences that steer us this way and that. What I am saying is that the walls between different domains are far shorter and more porous than they are made out to be. That, and the world is an incredibly complex and rich place, and discovering and experiencing all of that is something beautiful and very human. It would be silly and perhaps sad to turn away from this beauty just because someone somewhere said "this isn't for the likes of you."


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