Does STEM need the humanities?

Avatar photo Cedric Voigt - 25th Août, 2022

August saw A-level results day in the UK, a not-too-distant memory of stress and uncertainty for me. In these challenging times, the students who are leaving school are facing difficult decisions about their further education, having to weigh up their interests and passions with potential career earnings.

But accompanying this momentous day for young people have been discussions in the news about ‘worthless degrees’, after Prime Ministerial candidate Rishi Sunak suggested taking action against subjects he deemed to be of ‘low value’. 

Particularly, under the spotlight have been arts and humanities degrees, celebrated for their cultural significance and dismissed for their lack of mathematics in equal measure. For full disclosure, I am the proud owner of a BA degree and, without under-valuing the obvious importance of STEM or BSc subjects, will always champion the value of humanities. 

It almost seems bizarre the need to pull apart the humanities in order to justify their importance, even for future careers in the technology and science industries. Even within the confinements of a short blog post, one can identify four major skills developed by arts degrees; reading, writing, comprehension and cultural awareness.

Two of the three ‘Rs’

Perhaps the first two, reading and writing, seem rather obvious and unrestricted to the study of humanities. However, many people underestimate the importance of being able to express oneself clearly and concisely. For example, an Orwellian approach to language, or an Orwellian understanding of language, can help deliver complicated and isolating terms to the layman. 

Communication skills in technology are crucial to driving fast-growth companies, both internally through the sharing of ideas and externally through conversations with customers and investors. For example, to shed light on the complexities of deep tech, communication experts must have the ability to distil and highlight the key points in a coherent way without neglecting any important details.

The importance of understanding

The next great skill of the arts is comprehension. Not only do good comprehension skills encourage the generation of new ideas and the ability to adapt for individual expression, comprehension skills also enable access to existing ideas that can often be lost in translation. 

Comprehension is of course not limited to literacy skills. Working in or alongside evolving and expanding STEM industries requires an individual’s ability to debate and discuss, combining both technical and soft skills. The essence of effective teamwork lies in communication and understanding other people’s thoughts and ideas. The branches of comprehension grow into debate and innovation equally. 

The fourth and final string to the humanities bow is cultural awareness. The technology industry is a leader in globalisation, and is able to bring the whole world closer together. Strong emotional understanding in the tech industry can be the difference between a company being able to adapt between markets or failing to strike out beyond their home country. Cultural awareness is global and requires people to look beyond the numbers and analyse the ‘why’ behind developments in different sectors.

Building brains for the future

The T in STEM is a prime example of requiring the soft skills that come with the humanities, but all careers depend on a variety of educational backgrounds that go beyond the ever-esteemed STEM subjects. The expansion of opportunities to pursue higher education should be celebrated, as should equal respect to the differing academic or vocational pursuits of students. 

Rather than viewing certain degrees as low value, perhaps a brighter spotlight should be placed on the value of diverse teams in creating a stronger working environment and ultimately more heterogeneous skillset. 

For those who received their results a few weeks ago and GCSE students last week, know that no career is limited by your degree, or whether of course you venture into higher education at all. All students should be able to identify the tangible qualities they gain from their chosen subject matter. Beyond this, young people should understand that all sectors require a vast variety of skills that no single individual can possess entirely.

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