In today’s tech-driven world, the humanities may seem like the marginalized cousin to the increasingly popular STEM subjects. But Classics professor James Newhard believes that without an understanding of the human element, advances offered through science, technology, engineering and math won’t get very far.

by James Newhard

Very often, the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are contrasted with the humanistic disciplines. As a professor of Classics, I see this so many times, in political discourse, financial support, budgetary appropriations, general public discourse and the questions asked by my students and by parents of students.

Those of us in the humanities have heard the jokes, the questions, the well-meaning, but horribly shallow comments meant in some way to comfort our pursuit of an esoteric subject: Oh! Classics. Yeah, that’s important so doctors know where their words come from. Oh! Classics! Yeah … humanities are important so our scientists and other smart people learn how to read and write well. Please. Yes, we have an implicit understanding of what plantar fasciitis means. Yeah, humanistic pursuits develop skills in rhetorical loquacity. A truer last line to these jokes is really this: “Why should we care?”

Let me state what’s obvious to many of us in academia, but seemingly appears to be less obvious to others. Humanists ask the questions. Really stupid, hard questions for which there are seldom straight answers. The problems of this world – war, famine, pestilence, environmental degradation, religious fanaticism – these are not STEM problems. We, the humans, cause them.

And we, the humans, are going to have to solve them. Our STEM colleagues are hard at work in tracing the effects of global warming, disease and many other ills, but a solution for fossil fuels dependence goes no more than 25 feet from the lab if it cannot be implemented within a socioeconomic – a human – construct. And that solution best not be implemented without consideration of unintended consequences. History is replete with instances where the cure turned out to be worse than the cause.

We’ve been at this debate for a while, far preceding the development of the well-marketed acronym STEM. I tire of both the trumpeting of STEM as the savior of humanity, and the plea of the humanities for its right to exist. Arguments that lead us toward an emphasis of one over the other – if drawn to a ridiculous conclusion – result in either a Borg-like society where we are but cogs in a machine or a society that can think for hours about the nature of Truth, but has no concept of germ theory. A well-adjusted person – and society – require both. Fortunately, there’s a term for this: the liberal arts.

If we look at the artes liberales, we see seven subjects traditionally represented: the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Too often in the history of Western civilization, we have structurally divided the liberal arts. We speak nostalgically of the days when a liberal arts education was the education and, with a couple of years of Greek, Latin and other subjects, the young Thomas Jefferson was sent off to apprentice in the law and later do other stuff, too.

Over time, there was a sense that “practical knowledge” was important and that maybe we should be developing those skills as well. That, maybe, we should be less concerned with people’s knowledge of Plato, and more focused upon their capacity to do math. What we needed, after all, were engineers, accountants and other such skilled professions to build the new nation.

The 1862 Morrill Act called for land-grant colleges in order to support “liberal and practical education,” leading to schools of agriculture, engineering and business. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, the science revolution of the mid-20th century, and the technological revolution of the late 20th century only served to reinforce the importance and value – even salvational qualities – of STEM.

And yet, Einstein pondered greatly the condition of mankind. The images of Earth taken during the space race moved us greatly as a species. The Apollo mission – one of the greatest STEM accomplishments of the 20th century – registered a profound sense of humanity. Comments from returning astronauts were not filled with notions of “Woo hoo! We just ‘mathed’ the dickens out of that thing!” No, the reflections that came back were “Dang – we need to get along. We need to think about how we’re damaging the world and stop that stuff.”

The current digital revolution, while showing tremendous dependence upon STEM, nonetheless finds much of its innovation from the humanities. The success of Apple is not based upon its computing power as much as it is upon the way in which the tools are developed with a sense of artistry and simplicity and marketed as objects that signify a way of life as much as a way to run spreadsheets.

Looking forward, I seek a destruction of the false dichotomy between STEM and the humanities; and society, science and the academy largely bear me out, I feel. To quote the late David Kearns of Xerox: “The only education that prepares us for change is a liberal education. In periods of change, narrow specialization condemns us to inflexibility – precisely what we do not need. We need the flexible intellectual tools to be problem solvers, to be able to continue learning over time.”

Politicians, academic administrators and others over-encouraging STEM to the detriment of the humanities are in many ways fighting the last battle. Increasingly, the call from business and industry is not for people who can code, but people who know how and why to code. The world economy, interconnected and in constant flux, demands a mindset of continuous learning and reinvention. People no longer have the luxury of relying upon a single skill set for their entire livelihood. Navigating the 21st-century world requires an interconnectedness and willingness to engage with a variety of people and perspectives. A successful person in this world will be able to see not only the next move, but the next five moves in the chess game and position themselves accordingly.

Classics and other humanistic disciplines are primed to capitalize upon this recognized need, provided we see ourselves not as the curators of Western education and guardians of the “Great Tradition,” but rather as guides into the ways of multi-talent and multidisciplinary approaches that are increasingly the modus operandi of our various fields.

In fact, the roots of classical scholarship, stemming from the German concept of Altertumswissenschaft, emphasized a unified approach blending several disciplines – what we view today as philology, history and archaeology. If we think fully upon this, we realize our Germanic fathers were looking for anything that could aid in understanding the Classical world. In 1825, who would have viewed chemistry as relevant? Geology? Statistics? Multispectral imagery? GIS? Some of these didn’t even exist, or were in their infancy themselves.

As our own society seeks out courses of study that are relevant – that train students in inter- and multidisciplinary approaches of thinking; that engage the mind and cultivate strengths in logic, science and communication; that develop future leaders of our world to face the challenges and implement solutions – the liberal arts is well-situated to be a place that exemplifies the needs of our increasingly interdisciplinary and interconnected world.

James Newhard is an associate professor of Classics and the director of the College’s archaeology program.

Illustration by Tim Banks