Humanities Education Matters

I have Opinions about education. Many, many opinions. And I have very strong opinions about the absurdity of the idea that throwing money at math and science education will somehow solve our societal problems — not the least of which is the absurdity that throwing money at a problem is ever a useful solution (For more on that particular can of worms, check out this math teacher’s post.)

Don’t get me wrong. Science is awesome, and I’m a fan of math. I currently work in the translation industry and still get to use algebra. But science education is not a replacement for the humanities. Not at all.

Let’s get this out of the way first: to the argument that says science and math background makes people employable, I call bullshit.

Just today a piece on Al Jazeera quoted statistics citing 9% of computer science majors are unemployed, 14.7 % of people with degrees in information systems are unemployed, and people with degrees in STEM are facing record joblessness.

I increasingly hear stories of programs cutting back on arts and humanities funding in favor of math and science programs, and it makes me angry. Articles like this are one of the biggest reasons why.

Data may not lie, but interpretations can always be skewed. The better we are with numbers, the smarter, the more able we are to delude ourselves into thinking our biases are supported by the data.

In literature classes, we learn to call that hubris. And we know what results from that tragic flaw.

(See Julius Caesar, or better yet, King Lear. Rather, read it: to my knowledge no one has managed to effectively adapt King Lear for stage).

Education is not primarily about teaching students employable skills. That’s called training, and that also matters, but it’s not the same as education. Education is about teaching people how to think. That’s why study of the humanities will never be obsolete.

Science is important, but it is also important, not more important.

People seem inclined to think that in our digital information age science education is more important than ever, and I’m not sure that’s true. Last week author Max Gladstone wrote a fascinating piece on SF Signal looking at the intersection of science fiction and fantasy in our lives, and he raised a point that made me think.

Science is supposed to help us understand our world, which is all well and good, but who among us could, presented with the raw materials, build a smart phone from scratch? How many people know how they work? Do we need to? We use them every day, and we know enough to use them effectively. I’d argue for most people, “how to use them effectively” has less to do with understanding coding and hardware than it does understanding user interface, how to find and apply tools that work for what we need, how to evaluate when convenience is not worth the privacy tradeoff. And those are humanities-based questions.

Even people who are experts in building a smartphone probably can’t both design a touch screen and build an OS, and that’s fine, and it’s interesting. We don’t all need to be able to whip out Calculus proofs to be useful. Really, if you think about it, characters like Geordi La Forge are pretty much superheroes.

But there’s a reason that in Star Trek, problem-solving isn’t merely a matter of applying the right scientific solution, and engagements aren’t decided based on who has the more advanced technology. There’s a reason Picard’s greatest asset is not his Starfleet training. There’s a reason Vulcan logic is not more valuable than human passion.

There’s a reason that, in the end, humanity always triumphs over the Borg.

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3 responses to “Humanities Education Matters

  1. There’s a logical flaw in your argument. You assert that education is not about getting people jobs but about getting them to think. But you say nothing about why, if that is your definition of education, we need to encourage or support (or fund) it. If education means jobs, then there’s a clear selfish interest for every individual to get some. If it means something else, you’ve got to find a different motivation.

    • First, because I don’t believe people only do, or should do, things for selfish reasons.
      But that doesn’t even matter, because even if I did believe that, education benefits everyone. I’m going to take the personal benefits as given here, but look at others.
      Employers benefit by having employees capable of thinking, making intelligent decisions, and coming up with new ideas to improve things. Pretty much any job requires training after hiring.

      Law school involves a lot of theory, but not a lot of how to actually practice law; that’s learned on the job. What passing the bar does is let the law firm know that this is a person who is teachable, is capable of learning the necessary training, because they know how to think. And many people with law degrees don’t go on to law firms anyway, because they can apply that education to more than just one field.

      And it benefits society: our world improves when we have people engaged in thinking about what we can do to make it better, and how. If you want innovation and change, you have to have a high level of education. In that sense, it absolutely is self interest for people (and businesses, and governments…) to invest in education for everyone.

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