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Why study STEM? And how science can be a humanity

Why are sciences and humanities seen as separate anyway? asks the Royal Society's Tom McLeish.
This article is more than 5 years old

Tom McLeish is Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics, University of York. He also chairs the Royal Society’s Education Committee and co-leads an international collaboration on medieval science.

Why would anyone study science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) or computing at university?

There is, of course, a very pedestrian response – we have all read the employment and salary figures, the reports on shortfalls in scientifically-trained hires, the ubiquitous employer requirement for quantitative skills.

It didn’t take long to summarise, and I don’t want to expand in that direction. I’d rather try to understand why we’ve ended up asking the question in this way in the first place.

Disciplinary fragmentation

Since William Whewell coined the term ‘scientist’ in 1834 (probably), claiming that it would be more distinguishing, and possibly “distinguished” than the former term “natural philosopher”, the educational world has been engaged in a engaged in an experiment of disciplinary fragmentation. I don’t principally mean that chemistry has become different from physics, or geology from biology, or that any of these diverge from history or literature – these were always distinct activities with their own methods and fields of exploration. I mean that people have been differentiated at an equal level of fragmentation. “Doing physics” has become “being a physicist”.

School reports now carry this personal labelling to an absurd degree: “Joanna is fast becoming a competent chemist” we read in her mid-term report. Professor of Education at Kent, Berry Billingsley, likes to ask how often in our secondary school careers we ever see two different subject teachers in the same classroom (the answer is typically “never”). At the extreme end, verging on psychological abuse, comes the question, “is s/he on the arts side or the science side”? When this question grows up, it becomes the tyrannical handicap of “The Two Cultures”.

Unity of knowledge

“Science arose from poetry, when times change the two can meet again on higher levels as friends”, wrote von Goethe, possibly ruminating on the glorious entanglement of science and literature represented to him in his friend Alexander von Humboldt, or of ancient natural wisdom poems such as the Book of Job. But he may have been reflecting on deeper structural similarities. Poetry is the expression of imagination within the constraint of form. Science is an immense human task – it calls us to reimagine the entire universe on all its multiple scales, but to constrain that imagination by the form of the universe as we observe it. What could be greater poetry?

In small ways, we all play our parts in creative and constrained work. In business, education, homecare, healthcare, media, leisure, politics, and public service we face the challenges of creating the new and solving problems by calling on language and the human repository of ideas. At the level of our national and global communities we face an age in which a common grasp of the quantitative, of uncertainty, and of truth, have never been more urgent, nor under such threat.

Science and music

The Royal Society supports the STEM education community in the UK by all the means at our disposal – that much ought not to surprise. This includes our strong view that contact with science is essential throughout school years. The fact that we are working closely with the British Academy and others to assist school pupils in continuing language and humanities study as well may be more surprising. But if science, at the level at which it becomes poetry, is as deeply human as, say, music – then why would anyone suggest that we prematurely terminate the growth of minds in either?

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