Last week, Miss MSE discussed how engineers must be capable of telling a good story in order to effectively communicate scientific information. At the end of her post, Miss MSE discusses how she “generally in favor of humanities requirements for engineers” and has discussed more on it here. I wrote a brief comment stating that I am not in favor of humanities requirements for engineers and I want to clarify it more here. Just a forewarning, I’m going to start overly broad and then narrow down to the specific argument.
We (as a society) tend to have grandiose discussions surrounding education. Philosophically, we try to construct curricula to challenge and stimulate the mind. In theory, that’s a great thing that we should strive for. But in the society we live in (today), I don’t think it’s possible for students to learn a compendium of topics ranging from art to zoology and everything in between. There’s a finite amount of time that students have for exposure and learning new concepts. I’m going to hit the main topics that are covered in most HS education curricula:
world/US history, english/literature, 1 foreign language, biology, chemistry, algebra, calculus, (maybe) physics, (probably) civics
There’s a whole host of other typical course, but those are more of the elective type (art, wood shop, programming, and so forth). Now, if we group them into categories, we have Humanities [history, lit, language] in one corner and STEM [bio, chem, math, phys] in the other. I’m going to leave out civic for a second. Now, I didn’t do physics in HS although I know it’s common for most STEM folks to have been exposed to it prior to college. At the same time, just about everyone has had to read Shakespeare at some point in time. I’m not sure if it’s officially required, but it’s damn close. And I agree that learning effective writing and grammar skills is important but there is a distinct difference between that and Shakespeare. I don’t understand why understanding Shakespeare is a requirement for HS students, but basic physics is not. And (now I’ll tie in civics), if physics isn’t a requirement, then they need a more math-based civics course. Yes, we should learn about the structure of government at the local, state, and federal level but I would lump in other “requirements to function in the real world” into civics. This includes things like learned how to balance a checkbook (why we still use checks is beyond me but I digress…), how to calculate the interest from a credit card APR, and learning how to budget effectively for the future. That, to me, is infinitely more important than anything I’ll read in Shakespeare.
Now, if I fast forward to college educations, I’m going to parallel the same argument. Why do I have to take an Anthropology course or some other BS course that satisfies a “cultural objective” of my engineering education when people in anthropology don’t have to take Chemistry, Calculus, Physics, or any other advanced STEM course that I have to take? Most universities require “sciency courses” to graduate but most humanities majors take something like Geology 101 or Psychology 101. I don’t personally have anything against those courses, but those are soft sciences in my book. They’re not hard-core science courses. I think Humanities majors should have to take a “STEM objective” as part of their curriculum which requires undergraduate level STEM courses (not soft sciences). Until Humanities majors have to pass a calculus-based physics course, engineers (and other STEM majors) shouldn’t have to be bogged down with Humanities courses.
I knew someone who was a double major in Anthropology and History with a minor in Education. I was stunned. I asked her “how is it you have time for all of those courses in 4 years?”. Her response was that she was done with all of her major and minor requirements after 2.5 years and just needed “filler” course for the remaining 3 semesters. My jaw dropped. That was dumbfounding to me, until I found out that a History major required 27 credit hours, an Anthro major required ~22 hours, and the education minor was 20 hours (and some courses double counted) and didn’t add up to 120 credits needed to graduate. My Mechanical Engineering requirements were 122 hour and then I had to take 4 humanities courses (12 hours) to satisfy “cultural objectives”. Until Humanities majors take 120+ credit hours to satisfy their core degree requirements, requiring a STEM major to take humanities is a joke.