A Plea to STEM

January 31, 2017 § 5 Comments

There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t hear about the push for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). In this age of technological advancement, it’s no surprise that it has become an integral part of our society.

While the support for STEM is undoubtedly positive and necessary, it often leaves out something vital: the humanities. Please don’t misunderstand me; I realize that the individuals pursuing education and careers in the STEM field don’t exclude the humanities (and trust me, if I could code, I would be right there with them). But I’m not speaking about individuals in this case. I’m talking about the broader, societal desire and need for STEM. We need careers within STEM fields to such an extent that we often neglect, either wittingly or unwittingly, the value of the humanities. As a result, we tend to provide funding, discussion, and meaning to one, but not the other. The cost of such a combination, one that devotes most resources to STEM and neglects its counterpart, is not only negative, but it’s dangerous. In fact, it’s something that has close parallels to Frankenstein, even if Mary Shelley didn’t necessarily intend her work to reflect it.

The first time that I read Frankenstein, I was instantly hooked. My high school English teacher assigned it to my class, and after reading only the first few chapters, it became one of my favorites. I couldn’t go more than five lines without highlighting some sentence or phrase.

I loved it so much that I started watching all of the film adaptations I could find. To my dismay, it was hard to find one that captured the spirit of the book. Most Frankenstein films focus on the horror of an uncontrollable and murderous monster. After all, that’s what sells.

James Whale’s 1931 classic solidified the trend of these adaptations. Complete with the tagline, “It’s alive,” and plenty of aggression and murders, Whale turns the creature into a 1930s horror film villain with little sympathy. The film trades in the name Victor Frankenstein for Henry Frankenstein and presents an adaptation of a play’s adaptation of Shelley’s work. In the end, it does little to stay true to the original piece.

But if Mary Shelley and James Whale (indeed, all of the Frankenstein adaptations) share one thing in common, it’s this– the monster was a direct result of the pursuit of knowledge without careful consideration of ethics or morals. It didn’t come from fantasy or magic, and it didn’t occur as a natural phenomenon. The creature crawled out of Frankenstein’s imagination and into his own world.

The fundamental idea behind all of this is that the pursuit of knowledge holds dangerous implications when it doesn’t carefully question the morals behind the pursuit and the potential consequences of its result. In the novel, Frankenstein blames his “ardent curiosity” for his intense focus and desire to achieve supreme knowledge. His curiosity blinds him to all else, leading him to disregard morals, relationships, and human connection. As a result, he finds his desired knowledge, but he creates something with unforeseen and unintended consequences.

While you can never be certain of the consequences of a new technology, you can (and should) take steps to minimize the negative effects. The trouble arises, or, rather, monster comes to life, when you separate the technology from the ethics and the search for knowledge from the morals.

That’s the trouble with society’s desire to make STEM the forefront of our world– it excludes one of its most fundamental parts. To preach STEM without regard for the humanities is to hand Frankenstein the brain of a criminal for his creature. The two must go hand in hand.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the push for STEM in our world is overwhelmingly positive and needed. I see the value in continual technological advances, and the study of STEM provides that. Through STEM, we see the results of hard work realized in new medicines, more efficiency, and better lives. I simply mean that we cannot pursue these advances without the humanities. Through humanities, we see compassion, connection, empathy, meaning, and morals. The two work together, one no greater than the other, to create a balance that leads society to a better place.

We are closer now than ever before to making Frankenstein-esque discoveries. We cannot let our ardent curiosity and desire for knowledge blind us to the realities at stake. To do so would be to follow in the footsteps of Frankenstein himself, and if it were up to me, I would certainly choose to learn from his mistakes.

-Elizabeth Paul

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§ 5 Responses to A Plea to STEM

  • zachgospe says:

    After reading this post, I have to agree that a balance of STEM and humanities education is vital. While STEM education is arguably more practical in modern society, raising the standard of living and driving the economy, the humanities provide an analytical framework that is necessary for identifying and solving the ethical, social, and ideological challenges of the modern age. Indeed, if we fail to account for the societal effects of technological progress, humanity could certainly suffer.

    However, I hesitate to believe that “the pursuit of knowledge” itself is inherently evil or dangerous. In both of the versions of Frankenstein that you mentioned, the monster is not a danger in itself, but rather a representation of the worst aspects of human society. In Shelley’s original version, the creature is rational and, at first, generous. Human society, by being violent and prejudiced towards him, forces the creature to live a lonely and tortured life. It is this circumstance that results in the creature’s monstrous behavior. Similarly, in Whale’s version, Frankenstein’s creation is literally given the brain of a criminal. Further, the creature shows calmness and understanding until assaulted and provoked by fire. Thus, the monsters that already exist in our society are responsible for the creature’s violence, not the development of science.

    This argument is not meant to discount the point that STEM education and the humanities are both important. Rather, I bring up this distinction to hopefully reduce any fear or anxiety about the progress of technology itself. Technology is not something that needs to be feared, just as Frankenstein’s creation is not inherently dangerous. The humanities and STEM should be studied in tandem not because the humanities must balance out the immorality of scientific progress, but so that the humanities may identify and combat the faults already present in human society.

    Liked by 2 people

  • Your assertion that both “STEM and humanities must go hand in hand,” is an idea that I have stuck with throughout my education. STEM, without humanities, is rather limited. Humanities does not only teach “compassion, connection, empathy, meaning, and morals,” like you stated in the article. Additionally, humanities teaches the capacity for creativity required to innovate in all fields, including STEM.

    However in the context of higher level education, I do understand and empathize with science and engineering majors when they express aggravation towards taking liberal arts requirements. Time towards studying for humanities means time taken away from studying from courses required for the major. Nonetheless, liberal arts has its place in all majors and fields. Ultimately, the humanities not only gives us insight to our past and our cultural foundation, but it also allows us to creatively dream of the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I guess that’s why we have AXLE, a.k.a Achieving Excellence in Liberal Education, a.k.a. the bane of Vanderbilt pre-med students!

    Passive-aggressive jokes (“jokes”) aside, I would like to make the counter-point that “compassion, connection, empathy, meaning, and morals” do not need a classroom or a curriculum to be taught. Just because someone is immersed in science, math, engineering, or technology (that list is out-of-order on purpose), that doesn’t mean they don’t share the human impulse to connect to others. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that placing those terms within the exclusive realm of “the humanities” is part of perpetuating the stereotype of the nerdy scientist who hunches over the lab bench, or the programmer over the computer, or the engineer over a wacky little machine — not great when our goal is to expose our up-and-coming great thinkers to the best of both worlds.

    Of course I agree that our society must provide comprehensive, inter-disciplinary education to those who want it, and that it’s great to expose children to both STEM and literature/history. And perhaps Frankenstein is emblematic of the problems that arise when we, as a society, reinforce and maintain a dichotomy between STEM and the humanities. However, STEM is having its heyday because it was, for so long, neglected or unknown as a valuable field of inquiry. When “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” (as she’s called in the movie) wrote Frankenstein, humanities were the domain of the era’s greatest minds. English, history, and philosophy remain important, but taking the historical viewpoint might explain why so much of our ~funding~ is going to STEM research and education today.

    I’m thinking about the STEM–humanities balance like I think about another somewhat controversial topic, climate change mitigation: The U.S. already burned its fair share of coal while industrializing and developing. Now we realize that all of that fossil-fuel combustion is playing tricks on climate patterns all over the world, so our first impulse is to say that *no one* can burn coal from now on. But what about those countries that haven’t finished developing? How can we tell them to stop industrializing when they don’t yet have the technology and capital that we have in the U.S.? — technology and capital that will allow us to adapt to climate change impacts. It’s the same with STEM; the STEM fields are still catching up.

    Liked by 1 person

  • woodrume says:

    This argument for ethically-focused STEM education is one that rests close to my heart. It has always bugged me that, for some reason, engineers are not required to complete the same breadth of humanities coursework as other students at Vanderbilt. Take AXLE: a requirement for all Arts & Science students (including those pre-meds). What do Vandy engineers have to take instead? 18 hours of any combination of any liberal arts classes. A large number of Vanderbilt engineers simply AP out of all or most of this requirement (something that non-engineers are not allowed to do with AXLE).

    My experiences in the field of Computer Science have especially heightened my uneasiness with a system that seems very okay with letting engineers just do engineering. You only have to look at the statistical make-up of the Computer Science workforce to start to see issues with the industry. The brutal fact is that a large majority of code being written today is being written only by white males. I am not saying that these individuals are not intelligent or that a majority of them don’t have high ethical standards. However, such a homogeneous workforce is often unaware of (or unconcerned with) how its work affects a broader, more diverse society. If we want systems and applications that can positively and ethically impact all parts of society, I believe that we need to diversify the Computer Science workforce (and fast), including its educational upbringing.

    To that end, though, I have to disagree with the notion that society is putting too much funding or focus on STEM, and especially on STEM education programs. Many of the girls I teach in a Girls Who Code club in Nashville already have a solid foundation of humanities knowledge, but their schools don’t have the funding for real Computer Science programs. The Computer Science department at Vanderbilt is grossly underfunded and understaffed, even as the number of students in its intro classes has grown exponentially in the past 5 years. In my opinion, STEM needs the focus and funding now so that the next generation of scientists, developers, and doctors will be from various backgrounds and incorporate a more robust view of society.

    Liked by 1 person

  • maplesmm says:

    I’d like to echo the point made by Megan that schoolchildren have a relatively solid foundation in humanities. At my small, rural high school in Mississippi, the English and history departments were robust, challenging, and successful in educating critical thinkers. However, just down the hall from these teachers were the three football coaches who taught math from pre-algebra to calculus. That isn’t to say that football coaches should be expelled from the classroom, but it should be noted that my brother’s calculus teacher had never taken the subject. He taught exclusively using videos from websites like Khan academy. Now, it’s wonderful that such resources exist to supplement knowledge learned in schools. However, when those online tutorials become the only means of instruction, many students miss out on the joys and thrills that come from organic exposure to new math topics.

    Additionally, I whole-heartedly agree with Alisha’s point about the current dichotomy that exists between STEM and humanities fields. This polarizing mindset, held by a majority of people with whom I’ve come in contact with, is dangerous for students of the humanities, who provide means for discourse and debate but run the risk of being “left behind” in our increasingly digital age if stark distinctions continue to be made between the two fields. Additionally, as Paolo stated, STEM is not benefitted by the divide, as humanities provide can meaning, morals, and a creative spark.

    Like

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