Students Eschewing Humanities In Favor Of Science

This magnet taught me that stealing is wrong.
This magnet taught me that stealing is wrong.
The Times is reporting that students are high-tailing it away from the humanities, scurrying into “STEM” departments.

STEM is the educational buzzword of the day—theorists in education surf from fad to fad like teenage girls deluge then snub clothing stores in a mall—and it means science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Who can be against those?

Well, I, a scientist and mathematician, user and creator of modern technology, am against them. At least I’m opposed to the idea that they are adequate replacements for history, philosophy, literature, art, music. In the last, and at base, all of those are more important.

Science and math give us terrific toasters, efficient ways of annoying strangers with our electronic toys, and are darn good fields at extracting money from Leviathan. But none of them say word one about what is the best in life, which is the ideal way to live, what life is about, why life even exists, why anything exists, what is good and what evil, what is right and what wrong.

Sure, STEM extends the lives of a few of us. But just as a for instance, consider the hidden implications of that statement. Is living longer always better? Surely not. Otherwise there would be no mountain climbers, soldiers, priests—or doctors, come to that (exposed to plenty of diseases, those fellows). Are three extra years in Shady Acres nursing home strapped to an oxygen tank worth pursuing? Or should you smite the sounding furrows like Joshua Slocum? And you can go on and on, with not one question answerable by STEM.

There are two reasons for the turning tide away from a classic education, both of them rational, more or less.

By now the almost ineradicable idea that college is a jobs training program has seeped into the minds of parents and would-be students. Not many positions teaching philosophy, music, or art history. And those venturing into these courses have to endure repeatedly the you-wants-fries-with-that “joke”, and suffer jocular taunts that they must not want a lot of money.

And there it is: money. Always money. You can use all those equations you learned in STEM classes to track your endless bounty of money. What STEM can’t tell you is what the love of money leads to. Or why should want it in the first place. Incidentally, it’s not the pursuit of money which is objectionable (even bloggers have to eat), but its unthinking pursuit.

And there’s the real problem. All of life’s real questions are left tacit with STEM, to be filled in happenstance. Everybody thinks they know the answers to questions which they’ve spent scarce time studying.

Reason two: who the hell wants to sign up for a humanities class taught by raving ideologues, by professors more intent on indoctrination than on honest exploration of truth?

Exceptions? Sure there exceptions, and plenty of them. But they are exceptions and not the rule.

Who signs up for “Philosophy of Feminism” or “Theory of Gender” courses? Something has gone badly wrong by the time a student expresses interest in a “Studies” program (Black, Women’s, Queer, Latina; endless, endless). Academic historians are fascinated by race and sex quotas. Do teenagers need courses in masturbation (yes, these exist)? And modern music and art seem purposely designed as instruments of torture.

Is it any wonder students emerging from these majors are snot-nosed brats?

What’s worse is those kiddies who spend four years studying “disparities” think they know everything worth knowing about science, technology, and mathematics. They all quote cherry-picked statistics showing the end is nigh because the world isn’t being run along what they imagine to be Utopian lines. This wouldn’t be so awful except these people have the audacity to lecture STEM graduates on STEM topics.

What a dismal situation.

Solution? There is none. Or, at least, I have none to offer. Except this: turn off all your gadgets and go read a book, preferably one written before the demographic characteristics of the author became more important than his (or her!) words. Or go talk to a priest.


  1. Jer 17:5″…Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm…”

    He does not have hope, but ” there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance. With a nod to the similarly cursed Greek hero Oedipus, Camus concludes that “all is well,” indeed, that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
    AND as Alfred Lord Tennyson decrys – “Ours not to reason why, ours but to do and die.”;-)

    “When a bureaucracy takes over any enterprise, useful work decreases, and useless work increases!”
    Dr Milton Freedman

    “The principle that “useless work replaces useful work” was originally formulated to describe the operation of the British National Health Service. A good recent example of its operation is a rule laid down that patients in an Emergency Room would need to be treated within four hours. The problem, of course, is that the lack of relevant resources and the general inefficiency of a bureaucratic structure meant that people were waiting for many, many hours for treatment in Emergency Rooms. The proper solution, of course, was to get rid of the bureaucracy, free up the resources, and streamline the operation. Instead, the simple rule requiring that patients must be treated within four hours was simply met by not allowing new patients into crowded rooms! They could wait outside in ambulances or on the street. Presto! We’ve satisfied the rule! However, the British Emergency Rooms would eventually get to all the waiting patients. The purest form of the useless bureaucratic rule is one that indeed accomplishes absolutely nothing. A good example of that is the “Outcomes Assessment” (OA) in American education. For many years, students have been graduated who do not read, write, do simple mathematics, or know much about anything. The reason for this has obviously been the dumbing down, and politicization of the curriculum, replacing substantive instruction with “activities” and indoctrination about things like global warming.”

    The Practical Rules of Bureaucracy

    “Government is the ultimate bureaucracy, from which has been abstracted not only responsibility for the product, but the product itself.”
    David Mamet, The Secret Knowledge, On the Dismantling of American Culture [Sentinel, Penguin Books, 2011, pp.76, 78]

  2. Have you considered that STEM courses are no where nearly as difficult as in the past? I’m not sure you even have to be able to do calculus, just that you must feel good about your ability to do calculus? Reading blogs of people with degrees in physics earned since the early 80’s, I’m thinking that philosophy and “studies” are what is actually taught. Maybe they just switched the names?
    Also, science is the new god. If you are a Scientist, you are omnipotent, omniscient, and one of the best on the planet. Any who oppose you are EVIL, vile creatures who envy your huge brain and superior intellect. Thank climate science for that. (Actual scientific knowledge is not needed, just the title.)

  3. Briggs,

    The number of students who can afford to attend college purely for “character development” is tiny.

    The vast majority of today’s college students are attending college because they were told that a college degree would improve their economic prospects. For those students a humanities degree simply isn’t worth the investment of either time or money.

  4. MattS,

    Yes, but don’t forget, many employers more interested in prospects checking “Degree?” box than in content of education. Again, jobs training.

  5. Briggs, this is one of those rare occasions in which I find myself in disagreement. 🙂 Universities have next to nothing to do with job training, never have and I suspect never will. It is credentialism which occasionally pretends to be job training. A degree in science or even engineering does not provide job training which is still obtained on the job if you are lucky to obtain one in your field. The credentials often are specific to the eventual job as in the bachelor of education degree but the training aspect is laughable. We also have the case that an undergraduate degree is used to filter out applicants to real training such as that which is given in medical schools, dentistry, veterinarian schools, etc. There is the current trend to absorb what used to be vocational college training as in nursing, forestry, and business but this has been to the detriment of training. Training is and should always be the icing on the educational cake, which is only pursued when a job is lined up.

    It is hard to feel sorry for the humanities since they are largely the authors of their own fate. I am also less confident that their approach holds the keys to the meaning of life or that even if universities have declined recently that there ever was a golden age of the arts. There has been very little decline in the physical sciences and so I am not sure where you get that idea from Sheri? There has however been sniping at the edges in, for example, new degrees in non-disciplines such as environmental studies.

  6. As an engineer, I can tell you that a good command of English (or whatever your native tongue) is an essential skill. If I could go back in time, I would have taken more English courses, especially writing.

  7. Science and math give us terrific toasters, efficient ways of annoying strangers with our electronic toys, and are darn good fields at extracting money from Leviathan. But none of them say word one about what is the best in life.

    What is best in life?

    To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

  8. hi:

    Nice essay.

    I wonder how many kids are looking at real subjects like math because their parents want them to go to University but they themselves find the propaganda faculties (formerly known as the Humanities faculties) repugnant? i.e. they’re not STEMerers but not totally stupid either.

  9. I think that a sound education in the humanities is worthwhile. I am just not sure that this is an option offered at many Universities.

    My kids are majoring in practical fields such as biomedical engineering, business and speech pathology. They are nevertheless getting a very thorough education in the humanities–on their own by reading books, particularly the one’s I suggest to them.

    As to specific job training, I do think this is overrated. In all the jobs I have ever held, I learned almost everything I needed to know on the job. My degrees were helpful, but only to the extent they got me in the door and helped me catch on quicker to the on-the-job training.

    In my view, a rigorous education in classical philosophy would be one of the best preparations for every job I have ever held. Good philosophy teaches one how to think carefully and how to express complex ideas clearly. Unfortunately, finding a University that would provide a rigorous, classical education in philosophy is not easy.

  10. YOS,

    Great link!

    Stove’s book mentioned, which is a must-read. I’d only modify the “atheist” bit. He was and maybe wasn’t. I have to dig up the article his son wrote on his (the son’s) conversion to Catholicism. Tragic story.

  11. Concur with Michael Craig. You better learn to write very well even if you are going to be an engineer. If you can’t write well, you will not advance. I started working as a design engineer and finally ended up working for the Army Department Standardization Office editing military standards and specifications. I used to loathe paperwork and ended up making my living producing it.

  12. Thinking further on this topic, the main problem may not be the difference between training and non-training but between what Jacques Barzun called teachables and unteachables. The teachables are the traditional subjects such as English, Philosophy, History, Mathematics, and Science and unteachable subjects tend to have the word studies in the name.

    I hear you Ray and I will be experiencing this problem directly when I am grading lab reports tomorrow. It is just too bad that Engish (Philosophy, History) departments do not teaching writing skills anymore, or would this be training?

    YOS & Briggs, personally I found the linked essay to be rambling and incoherant, but that is no doubt a lack in my training. Poor Darwin, causing trouble even after all these years and he was such a gentleman compared to Galileo that you’d think that the Pope would give him time off for good behaviour or at least beatify him.

  13. Technology and engineering give us toasters, and so on, but science and mathematics, properly speaking, while not part of the humanities, are part of the liberal arts. It bothers me that science and math get lumped in with the practical arts (which are vitally important, of course), although that is probably due to these subjects being treated that way so often by the colleges and universities.

    The rest of the liberal arts are still important, but unless one is attending an unusually good school, it may be better to pursue them outside of the classroom, or at least by choosing one’s classes and professors carefully.

  14. The presence in the comments of folks recommending humanities so that engineers can write well is telling about modern education. If students have to wait until university to learn to write, half the battle is already lost.

    Someone also comment about a possible recent dumbing down of STEM. I only have one disturbing data point: an otherwise excellent book on Meteorology for Scientists and Engineers which uses sums and deltas in order to avoid calculus. There are STEM folks who don’t know calculus??

  15. Art (ars) was something done by an artisan and so is related to craftsmanship. It meant “know how.” Science (scientia) meant “know what.” This division follows on the division of Will from Intellect and in fact Art and Science were perfections of these powers of the soul much as diet and exercise are perfections of other, more bodily powers.

    Liberal is from liber, meaning “free” and is the same adjective used for liberum arbitrium, “free will.”

    The Trivium consisted of:

    The Quadrivium consisted of:
    Arithmetic — Number in itself
    Geometry — Number in space
    Music, Harmonics, or Tuning Theory — Number in time
    Astronomy or Cosmology — Number in space and time

    They are discussed in the context of education by the estimable Dorothy Sayers:

  16. YOS,
    I read the Sayers link and although parts of it are good the same fundamental error is made as I’ve seen in many essays on education. This error is the claim that it is possible to teach students how to learn rather than give mere instruction in subject matter. Every, well almost every, reform in education is based on this notion. One reason that the present system of education, that everyone deplores, became the way it is is the continuing attempt to teach how to learn. Read any apology for progressive methods and you will see it stated in black and white. The problem is that learning to learn is one of Barzun’s unteachables. It is an emerging property that in most people does not emerge. It is telling that in attempting to devise such a system Sayers must revert to examples of subject matter disciplines. None of this means that there isn’t a distinction between specific training (e.g. plumbing, carpentry etc) as opposed to general training (e.g. the three Rs), but there is no learning to learn beyond these basic tools. When will we stop listening to people who are always wrong? John Saxon understood this. See:

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