Commentary

Why STEM Majors Need the Humanities

January 06, 2017

When I was a freshman, half a century ago, I asked one of my professors — an eminent mathematician named Lars Ahlfors — for advice on my academic program. As a budding mathematician, I knew about a lot of math courses I should take and some physics courses as well. I asked what other courses in math and science I should include in my program. Ahlfors replied, "Don’t take more courses in those subjects. Once you get to graduate school, you’ll be studying nothing but mathematics. Now is your chance to become well-educated. Study literature, history, and foreign languages."

I sometimes repeat this story to my students and hope that the message is not drowned out by what they might be hearing from parents, friends, and the media.

The weakening of liberal-arts traditions and the corporatization of higher education are on the minds of many of us. Particularly ominous is the nationwide trend toward education-on-the-cheap in our entry-level courses. This takes two forms. First, more and more undergraduate courses are being taught online. This might be good for the institution’s bottom line, but in most cases it is not good for the student, whose learning and whose college experience are being diminished.

Second, introductory courses are increasingly being taught by adjuncts, graduate students, and second-tier teaching faculty. The result is to transform the first (and sometimes second) year of college into an extension of high school, lower the intellectual level of introductory courses in both humanities and STEM fields, and create further distance between students and the world of research and innovation.

The argument against replacing the liberal-arts tradition with a narrow vocationalism is usually phrased in purely humanistic terms — the importance of educating the whole person, the need for a broadly informed citizenry, and so on. Often overlooked is that for STEM majors, as much as for other future professionals, a broad background in the humanities is likely to give them a tremendous advantage in their career.

A good piece of technical work is part of a narrative that has a long plot line and a large cast of characters.
With few exceptions, in order for people in the STEM professions to have an impact, they must be able to write effectively and creatively. Let me illustrate with examples from my own field, mathematics applied to information security. Forty years ago, at the dawn of the computer age, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers published an article, "New Directions in Cryptography," that is arguably the most important paper in the history of cryptography. Written by two broadly educated computer scientists, Whitfield Diffie and Martin E. Hellman, the article had an impact that was due not primarily to its technical content, impressive though that was, but rather to the authors’ ability to articulate a vision for the future internet that can still be read today as a guide to some basic principles of cybersecurity.

Another example is the recent book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil, a Harvard math Ph.D. who deftly translates her expertise in mathematical modeling into a series of stories that sound the alarm about the use of mathematics to intimidate, mislead, and mistreat millions of people.

But what about rank-and-file scientists and engineers, who have more-modest attainments than Diffie and Hellman and write for a much smaller readership than O’Neil? For us as well, success in achieving our objectives often depends on the ability to tell a story.

For example, our journal articles will reach a wider audience if the introduction is an engaging narrative that proceeds from statement of the problem, explanation of its importance, and summary of prior work to an overview of the paper’s contributions and directions for future research. Grant applications will have a better chance of success if they convey one’s technical accomplishments in language that gives context, history and direction, and does not lose sight of the forest for the trees. And if we want to influence a decision on a scientific or technological controversy, either in our work or as a citizen writing an op-ed for the local newspaper, we must broaden our focus and write with a perspective that will make sense to diverse groups of people.

The common element in all of this is knowing how to tell a story. Contrary to popular misconceptions about science and technology, a good piece of technical work is not a disembodied sequence of formulas and calculations, but rather is part of a narrative that has a long plot line and a large cast of characters.

Story-telling is a fundamental part of being human, from the time we are little children. It is also a central part of many cultural traditions, as we see, for example, in Patricia Hill Collins’s writings about the experiences of African-American women.

How can a student learn to tell a story well? First and foremost, by reading great literature. Another way students can learn how to analyze content and trace the development of an idea is through the study of history. And finally, one of the most effective ways to acquire a broad perspective and an appreciation for the nuances of communication is through the study of foreign languages and literatures. (I double-majored in mathematics and Russian language and literature when I was an undergraduate.)

One way my university is trying to convey the importance of the humanities is through its Early Fall Start program, which takes place during the month before the fall term begins, and consists of intensive five-credit multidisciplinary seminars (enrollment capped at 25) taught by research faculty members. It is not education on the cheap. For many of us — including me — it is the most satisfying teaching we do. We push the students hard, we make them write and rewrite papers and give PowerPoint presentations, and in my course there’s also a lot of math.

We try to explain what critical thinking means at the university level. The only negative is that just a small proportion of the university’s incoming students (about 10 percent) get this opportunity before they’re thrown into the large classes and, for STEM students, the rat-race to get into competitive majors. In addition to introducing students to the rigors of college courses, Early Fall Start faculty members orient them about how to get the most out of their years at the university.

One of the most important things I tell my class is basically what Professor Ahlfors told me 50 years ago. I tell them that they’ll be much better off in the long run if they take this opportunity to study literature, history, and foreign languages. It will lead to a richer, more fulfilling life of the mind.

In addition, it will lead to a more successful career. Because if you really want to have impact in the STEM fields, you have to learn how to tell a story.

Neal Koblitz is a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington.