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Humanities: Useful for Science Students?

By Samantha Williams, student, SUNY Empire State College; assistant editor, The Student Connection

April 16, 2015

Digitized Woman with Marker The past several years have seen an increase in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) funding and a decrease in funding for humanities programs across the United States. In a word, STEM is “in” and humanities are “out.” Can the humanities, the study of humanities and the engagement in humanities be useful for science students?

Surprisingly, there is not much research out there about what the humanities can offer science students. This is disappointing considering the focus on “liberal studies” at most colleges, which is why many schools, including SUNY schools, employ general education requirements. What’s the difference between humanities and liberal studies? If you take a look at the dictionary definition, humanities is the study of such things as art, philosophy, language and sociology; in other words, human-centered studies. Liberal studies, however, encompass both these human studies and more logically-based studies, like math and science (our STEM courses).

In an article by Alan Bleakley and Robert Marshall titled “Can the Science of Communication Inform the Art of the Medical Humanities?,” the usefulness of the humanities is considered when reviewing medical students’ performance. Bleakley and Marshall are concerned about whether communication can help medical students by affecting their post-graduation experience in a positive way. They cite a study conducted by Mt. Sinai Medical School which found that students with no science background, but with backgrounds in humanities studies, performed as well or better than students with science backgrounds. Bleakley and Marshall suggest that an emphasis on communications courses (often thought of as humanities studies) and on other humanities studies related to medicine (history, philosophy, etc.) can lead to more collaborative, professional and empathetic workers.

Another article by Judith Bramble called “Reshaping Their Views: Science as Liberal Arts” tackles the topic in a different way. Bramble discusses her experiences as a science professor teaching general science courses. Her interest lies in how general science courses call help all students, regardless of major. Although not specifically about how humanities help science students, Bramble’s article provides a nice takeaway: If students understand how science inquiry works, they can better understand how social issues can be solved as well.

Physicist Alan Lightman focuses more on how the humanities shape him in an article named “A Tale of Two Loves.” As a poet and author, as well as a physicist, Lightman understands the importance of both science and humanities and he teaches both because of his understanding. He asserts, “The arts and humanities…offer the sciences an essential store of other ideas, images, metaphors and languages.” Different ways of thinking, he concludes, are important to both areas of study and lend something to both science and humanities.

John S. Rigden and Roger H. Stuewer take Lightman’s conclusions a step further in “Can the Humanities Help Science?” Rigden and Stuewer are both science professors and Rigden discusses his experience in detail, explaining his regular habit of inviting speakers to his physics course to give students an idea about what skills are needed in the workplace. Despite each speaker’s background, the common theme each emphasized was that students should “learn to write.” Writing, communication, history, philosophy—these are all traditional studies considered to make up the humanities.

Regardless of the limited research, the importance of the humanities to science students may come down to this: will exclusive science studies prepare them with the skill of communication as well as with the access to different ways of thought and problem-solving? I leave you with this beautiful thought from Rigden and Stuewer: “Education should liberate.” Isn’t that why we are all here, regardless of our chosen study?

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