25 responses to “Require Humanities Students to Take Core STEM Classes”

  1. Katie

    While I think you make some valid points- Anthropology is not likely to help a Mechanical Engineer- I don’t think that a major point of your argument, neatly summarized in your last sentence “until Humanities majors take 120+ credit hours to satisfy their core degree requirements, requiring a STEM major to take humanities is a joke,” is a great argument.

    I’d like to see a bit more concrete reasoning then “they don’t have to learn science, why do I have to learn about higher forms of English.” It just doesn’t address the real point- namely, what is the benefit to engineers in taking humanities courses? You don’t see much benefit, and that’s ok, but I don’t think that point was expanded very well. It just seems like you’re more upset with the inequality of courseloads, and you’re not upset that engineers are taking classes that don’t directly relate to their job.

    Example: French,Comparative Literature and linguistics are humanities. I took them all, and I’m a civil engineer. Have they helped me? “Not yet but it will”, “yes,” and “no,” in that order. They all reflect interests of mine, and as I want to work abroad, French will be useful. Comp. Lit helped my writing skills- something that’s extremely valuable, even as an engineer. Linguistics has yet to benefit me, and perhaps that was a poor choice on my part– it “seemed real cool at the time.”

    I can see your point of view, but I don’t think my humanities courses were bad. Linguistics may not have been useful, but how was I supposed to know that? I still enjoyed it. I think that’s the point of humanities- become more educated on topics you enjoy, get a broader perspective, enrich yourself in non-STEM topics, and by doing these things you’ll develop your non-STEM strengths, which I see as a good thing for engineering students.

  2. Chris Gammell

    And aside from the reciprocal nature of this argument (as in why the humanities majors should take some STEM classes), there is also the obvious benefit of having a more scientifically literate populace. At least in theory.

  3. K

    Oh boy GEARS, this is a testy topic. And hey, I’ll add to it.

    The reason the calc based physics requirement doesn’t exist is because they won’t pass. Too much time, energy, and money would be spent for these people trying to get them to pass calc based physics. They can’t do it. And any money making university (and they all are money making universities) can’t have all of their students failing out of a requirement.

    I would say this is because we aren’t making them take the classes earlier.

    And the argument I heard is that reading and analyzing Shakespeare is equivalent to studying the second law of thermodynamics. Guess how many high school students are studying the second law of thermodynamics?

  4. gasstationwithoutpumps

    The general-education requirements at UCSC are more balanced:
    I would say that there are 4 humanities and 3 STEM requirements, plus a few requirements that could be satisfied with either (like writing and “practice” courses). Neither the humanities nor the STEM classes need be difficult courses, and there are some popular “easy A” classes on both sides, but a lot of the courses that qualify for general ed are required courses for majors.

    I’m particularly pleased with the statistics requirement (a subject far too few STEM majors took before the change in requirements) and the “disciplinary communication” requirement.

    If I had a free hand in designing a general ed curriculum, I’d probably drop one of the humanities requirements, as being too narrow and more inspired by politics than pedagogy (try to guess which one).

    1. AMS

      The only problem I see with that list is that a student can get through all of them without having to do any calculus or quantitative science. Contrary to popular belief, calculus is easier than algebra, is essential to understanding pretty much all of modern math, and should really be covered in HS. Also in the modern world a person without at least some grasp of quantitative science is functionally illiterate on a socieital stage as quatitative techniquies are moving into formerly soft areas (finance, politics, etc.).

      1. gasstationwithoutpumps

        I disagree that calculus is the appropriate math that every college-educated person should know. Statistics is far more important to society. I’m not denigrating calculus—it is indeed a useful branch of math, but I’m pleased that UCSC made statistics mandatory, but left “quantitative reasoning” more open.

  5. Carmen Parisi

    A thought provoking article; I enjoyed reading it.

    While I’d love to see Humanities majors take hardcore STEM classes, I would also argue that there is some benefit to having STEM majors take Humanities courses too besides the whole cultural objective thing.

    As a professor I’m sure you’ve read your fair share of lab reports and papers droned on and on using the same phrases over and over until you wanted to scream. This test was ran… The results were blah blah blah. Ad infinitum. I know it makes my blood boil reading things like that. Being exposed to various forms of literature, in my opinion, help a writer learn to express themselves not only more clearly, but also more enjoyably to whoever has to read their work. I’m not arguing for the full on story telling that Miss MSE was, though it could work I suppose, being able to put together more than simple sentences when writing is pretty worthwhile. The classics like Dickens and Shakespeare may not be a good fit for this but modern writers like Kerouac, Salinger, and Hunter S. could work.

    As sort of a middle ground between our points, there could be a technical lit class in the STEM colleges. Students could read datasheets, app notes, papers, book passages, etc. by well known, well written, scientists and engineers to get a feel for good technical writing.

    On a separate note, I’m also shocked at the credit requirements needed for a Humanities degree. It’s rather ridiculous when you look at it…

    1. Phil Levchenko

      On the contrary, technical documentation written by overly-humanitised (well, that’s a new word 🙂 ) engineers in many cases are simply waste of everyone’s time.
      Because they tend to write very long explanations for something simple, which can be described using a couple of sentences instead of the whole page.

      In many cases it’s pretty easy to read, at least you don’t have a lot of constantly repeating phrases, but it is a damn hard to extract some useful information out of that documentation (article, datasheet, manual, white paper, etc.).

      And for me, personally, that kind of documentation is many times worse than some text with constantly repeating text patterns.

      1. Carmen Parisi

        Different strokes I suppose :). While putting 7 words in place of one could be considered just as bad of writing as using the word experiment 200 times in a 3 page report I find I can’t extract information from repetitive writing. My eyes tend to glaze over and I just focus on the bad writing instead of what’s being said. Finding a writer who can balance readability and clarity of content is key.

        1. GMP

          I second GEARS’ sentiment. If you want to learn how to write technical texts, you will not learn that from someone who does not routinely write them. I have witnessed, on two graduate students, the results of courses on (supposedly) technical writing as taught by humanities people.

          There were rules such as “Never write in first person (singular or plural). You only use the first person when you state your opinion or belief on something. For objective truths use passive voice.” That’s total bullshit in technical writing at this day and age. First, in science texts there is no such thing as opinion or belief — anything that I believe or opine had better follow logically from my data so that anyone else can infer the same thing, otherwise it’s wild speculation and does not belong in a technical paper. Also, passive voice is nowadays considered unduly cumbersome and writing in first person (usually “we” where it can include the reader) is perfectly fine.

  6. Fluxor

    I’m all for humanities majors taking a “practical statistics” course. Especially journalism majors.

    1. Ismail Hameduddin


  7. Nicoleandmaggie

    I always thought it was unfair that I had to take *real* humanities courses that counted towards humanities majors for my gen ed requirements, but humanities majors got to take courses with (literally) titles like “rocks for jocks” “physics for poets” and so on that didn’t count towards any major, just stupid gen ed requirements. They did have to take a stats course, but again, not one that would count towards any major.

    As commenters above have noted: a required technical writing course geared towards our specific subject area sure would be a lot more useful than a Shakespeare class. Technical papers are not written in the same style as English or history papers.

    Getting rid of math fear would do a lot more for the employability and well-roundedness (not to mention ability to survive in a world based on money) of humanities majors than learning about 16th century history does for most STEM folks. There are a lot of college-educated people out there who don’t have basic survival skills requiring numbers but who can write a flowery sentence. It’s just harder to get every humanities person to pass a real math-based course than it is to get every engineer to BS an English/History course. (And the engineer is going to be less likely to make a big stink about earning a “C”, while a “C” could utterly destroy a humanities major’s GPA.)

    Not that I didn’t enjoy my humanities courses, and not that I ever received a worse grade than my English and History major counterparts (because I am well-rounded and awesome). But the skills I got from those classes really aren’t as valuable as the ones missing from my math-phobic counterparts, especially since much of what I did in those classes I’d already done on my own– reading entertaining novels is kind of fun. Most humanities peeps don’t do math problems for fun.

  8. David Bley

    I would like us to take a step back and look at a bigger picture. The ability to read, to communicate by writing and speaking, to attentively listen, to know enough history so that one does not repeat it, to know how to learn, and to understand our world as competent persons and citizens are basic goals of an educational process (IMHO). In education (as well as employment) we seem to see the process as closed ended. We all need to be lifelong learners. Some of which may be formal but most of which will be informal. With the rate of change, the half-life of what we have learned is not relevant or useful and formal educational processeses are always lagging the latest technology.

    In view of this, curriculum cannot possibly encompass everything that one needs to know. There is no measure of how well we are able to learn, only of what we have already learned. In the employment market, we are not selected by what we are potentially capable of doing, but what we have already done. That is why the “labor shortage” exists.

    1. Nicoleandmaggie

      Sure sure…

      But what about the ability to understand the infinite (Calculus) or the building blocks of life and the physical world (Science) or basic logical thinking skills (pick any STEM field). (Yes, some humanities professors do linear thinking similar to what is taught in the sciences, but many think in creative clouds instead.)

      I’m just not seeing how being able to understand that a poet was really talking about a woman’s genitalia when he was pretending to be talking about a flower is really that much more valuable than what our humanities counterparts are missing out on. Math and science have their own beauty and their own uses and their own paths to additional life-long learning. And folks are graduating college without even the most basic of tools needed to pursue that.

      1. Ismail Hameduddin

        I think what you are trying to ask is, what definition of “cat” is more useful? A poetic description of how it looks like, how it acts, its relationship to human beings or its DNA sequence properly laid out in tables.

        There is a time and place for both; however I think most can do without the latter description. 🙂

  9. Useful Things I Have Learned That Engineering School Never Taught Me | Engineer Blogs

    […] had this post written already, but think it’s an appropriate response to recent articles from GEARS and from Miss MSE about which humanities classes I thought should have been part of my […]

  10. GMP

    Ha! This was an interesting read. I am surprised you haven’t received more venomous responses on this one.

    From my snooty European standpoint I think the breadth requirements in US colleges are a waste of time and money; all the gen ed could be easily done in a stronger K-12. I am appalled how early in middle/high school math starts to slip off the radar, and how devoid on math science instruction is. So of course you can’t have someone take calculus in college when they graduate from high school with an 8-th grade math education.

    The whole higher education system in the US is grossly unpopular with the public and increasingly working on the supply/demand principle, with everyone’s panties up in a bunch over low enrollment/student dissatisfaction/nosediving revenue. So yes, exactly what K said above — no non-STEM majors would pass a rigorous STEM class, that ‘s why you don’t make them do it. Otherwise too many upset precious snowflakes would take their tuition dollars elsewhere and we can’t have that, now can we?

  11. Ismail Hameduddin

    The problem with this discussion is that the humanities are not taught the way they are supposed to be taught. Instead of “liberating” the intellect for logical, critical thinking, the liberal arts are often (especially at large schools and in the lower level classes) reduced to pseudo memorization and regurgitation with some “analysis” sprinkled far and wide – for credibility y’know. This is quite useless to be honest, and that is precisely why most engineers do not find the extra classes they are taking to be of any real benefit.

    Reform the liberal arts curriculum so the emphasis is on “curing stupidity”, where stupidity is defined as sloppy thinking, writing and reading. Most engineers, for example, do not even know how to read a book. I say that as an engineer – I had to go out of my way to learn how to properly read and analyze books, as opposed to reading “stories”, “novels” and “sentences” (I recommend Mortimer Adler’s famous book for the inquisitive mind). You find the same story when it comes to thinking and writing. Unfortunately, I believe the real problem is often that the people teaching liberal arts have not yet gotten a cure for their own stupidity!

    Also, make the humanities requirements more structured. I find it supremely useless to take a random selection of humanities courses just to satisfy requirements. The choice of humanities courses should be more carefully thought out with an eye on the ultimate objectives.

    I used to think school was just to learn how to make stuff and be a good engineer (similar to your opinions regarding “grandiose” objectives) but as I grow, I realize that making gadgets is really only one of the most transactional parts of human life. The real transformational stuff can only be unlocked if you’ve been trained to think, read and write correctly. I guess you’re supposed to have gotten this from the “humanities requirements” at school…

    Engineers are famous for their elitism (we run the world) and liberal arts people usually wear blinkers to the fact that their field is not something transactional but is rather supposed to be transformational (as in Tolstoy’s understanding of art). Sadly both live in glass houses, yet keep the stones flying.

    Do you ever wonder where the “soundbite culture” comes from despite the USA being the most “highly educated” society in the world?