It is no secret that the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects are a hot topic both in and beyond education. Universities host STEM fairs and outreach days, President Obama has supported initiatives to teach children how to code, and the Boy Scouts of America are piloting STEM Scouts, just to name a few. I think some of these are certainly laudable—especially programmes that seek to increase participation from under-represented people in these fields. While STEM is certainly a catchy acronym, I am wary of loosing sight of the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
Modern technology is evolving at previously unprecedented rates. In less than a generation, the advent of computers, the internet, and smartphones have completely revolutionised how we live. I don’t think we are far from a society where humans need not apply for many jobs; in just one example, self-driving cars are already making their (own) way onto roads. As our computers become more and more intelligent, we must decide what values we “teach” them. The classic trolley problem is looking less like a thought experiment and more like potential lines of code. While ultimately a self-driving car should be “taught” to minimise destruction to life and property, how do these get defined? Does such a car have a greater obligation to ensure the safety of its owner than a pedestrian?
Such questions (about any technology) are clearly not solely situated in the realm of computer science or engineering. We need to draw on philosophy, history, and literature to construct our answers. Einstein fittingly put it, “For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary.”
I also consider the setting in which the STEM subjects thrive—a liberal democracy allows for the free and open exchange of ideas. But democracy is not simply a means, but an end itself. Worryingly, democracy is not a given but requires the support and participation of its citizens.
President Obama eloquently reminded us, “It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy… Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.” In the current political climate, I fear such guardians are needed more than ever before. We will not build these guardians from mathematical formulae or artificial intelligence. Our only hope for these defences lie in our histories, our writings, and our philosophies.
Finally, the arts, humanities, and social sciences are necessary to understand the human condition. It is in these domains we find solace, hope, and empathy. It is how we can share joy, anger, and love. It is where we understand compassion, beauty, and humanity.
This struck me most recently in the early hours of November 9. In a time of shock, anger, despair, fear, and sadness, my newsfeed was filled with quotations and artwork from thinkers, writers, and artists. We turned to Maya Angelou, Albus Dumbledore, Confucius, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Ben Franklin, and Wonder Woman. We reflected on holy books, symphonies, artwork, and literature. We expressed ourselves through poetry, photography, fashion, drawing, and blogging. I could not imagine a world without this.
I am not opposed to the STEM subjects; I very much appreciate the life humans have because of them! But human life is equally dependent on the arts, humanities, and social sciences—the very things that make us human. An education grounded in the STEM subjects is not enough. Free-thinking people must also live an examined life of literature, arts, humanities, philosophy, and society. I suppose acronym fans could all it a LASHTEMPS education, but I think in my future posts, I will just say liberal arts…