Require Humanities Students to Take Core STEM Classes

Require Humanities Students to Take Core STEM Classes

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.

[photo credit: Scientific American (but I got it from here)]


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.

I think Humanities courses can make you a better all-around person. My post doesn’t discuss that aspect of it. However, the point of my post is different that that discussion.

I am taking the stance that Humanities students should have to take real science courses. If Humanities students had to pass real calculus and real physics courses (not “rocks for jocks” and “physics for poets”), then I would be fine with forcing engineers (and other STEM folks) to take Humanities courses.

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.

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?

The extension of your argument is that there’s “degree inflation” like needed a BA or a BS to be a mall store manager or something like that. If there were less people passing difficult but necessary classes, then it would prevent some of those aspects.

With that said, you’re absolutely right. The drop out rate from forcing Humanities students to take core STEM courses would be prohibitive from an administrative standpoint.

The funny part about your last comment, Shakespeare vs the 2nd law of Thermo is that thermo is a “mid-degree” course. There’s a couple needed before and most programs have a second thermo course, heat transfer, and advanced electives.

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).

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.).

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.

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…

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.

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.

I think we can all agree that students should learn to write better. But I don’t think they’re going to learn better tech writing skills from an english teacher. I’ve discussed this before when I posted about taking all of your degree courses by profs in your major.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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. 🙂

While I see the point of your argument, you could easily make the case that these are the values that parents should be instilling in their child(ren). Is it good to have these values reinforced by a good education? Yes. Do I, as a parent, want to leave that solely up to my child’s teachers? No.

Nicoleandmaggie sum it up nicely for me. I want students (and my child) to learn logic, reasoning, and critical thinking, which can be learned by both Humanities and STEM education. If they can’t make change from a $20 bill when they buy lunch, that’s very worrisome. If they don’t understand advanced poetry, I’m not going to lose sleep over it.

Gears: a math education will equip you with a good set of logic skills but without written language (which is much more powerful, albeit difficult to deal with, than mathematical language), cut and dry logic will not take you very far. Not to mention that frequently, logical thinking is not called for but rather more general rational thinking. It is the latter which is difficult to master and I believe a proper humanities education can help.

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?

Agreed! I was going to stoke the flames a little more but used some selective editing. Not so sure my anti-Humanities would fly at SnowU.

I think it’s fair to say that most STE (and sometimes the M) majors despise the math education at their university because classes are either taught by untrained grad students or uncaring faculty. There could be an added benefit for making Humanities students take and pass advanced math courses to graduate: the quality of the service courses in Math Departments would undoubtedly have to increase. STEM students have a hard enough time with abstract math for the sake of math. I can’t imagine the vehemence on the part of non-STEM students taking a math course that doesn’t give any explanation to the real world (as is the case in my experience). If you forced non-STEMs to take calc and phys, the profs teaching it would be under serious pressure to increase the quality, unlike now, where STEM students have no choice but to pass so they don’t give a damn. (Can you tell I’m a little against the current math curriculum?)

With that said, there’s still a zero-to-none chance that non-STEMs would pass.

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?

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