Phi Beta Cons

STEM and Humanities? So Easy to Have Both

The most recent skirmish in the “vo-tech” vs. “humanities” war seems to be occurring in Kentucky. As reported by The New York Times, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin suggested that state funding not be directed towards students majoring in, say, French literature, but instead be channeled to students majoring in more employment-friendly areas such as engineering. Predictably, the humanities supporters are complaining that their subject areas are being denigrated, and that such a suggestion is discriminatory on its face. 

But I don’t see why both objectives can’t be achieved at the same time. As a long-ago chemistry major, I was prompted by this news story to wonder what flexibility I would have today to infuse my chemistry degree with deep exposure to the humanities.

It seems that I would have no trouble at all. I went to the academics section of the Ursinus College web page, where I used to teach, and estimated the requirements for a chemistry degree at that fairly typical liberal arts college. The College requires 128 credits to graduate, and most courses are 4-credit, so I’ll simplify and address the issue in terms of numbers of courses, 32 in total.

A student who majors in chemistry is required to take 12 courses in that discipline, plus one additional chemistry elective — 13 in all.

In addition, there are typical liberal arts core requirements, which appear to me to total 11 courses. After allowing for the core requirements, this leaves an additional eight courses that are essentially free electives at the college. Room for lots of humanities there.

But wait, there’s more! Of the 11 core courses, two of them are first-year seminars in a great books-type of curriculum , which certainly can be considered humanities. Two more are in math and science (the chemistry student has these already, as part of the major), two emphasize ”diversity,” there’s another in humanities, and a final one in a selection from the arts/music/theater/dance curriculum.

When I add it all up, it seems to me that a chemistry major will have the opportunity to fashion a strong humanities exposure through as many as 16 unrestricted or fairly unrestricted electives — even more than the courses required for the major in chemistry.

So, I don’t see what the angst is all about. In fact, if I were a student starting out in college, I would want the best of both worlds — the STEM-type major, along with the personal development that comes from deep exposure to the humanities, and clearly I can have both.

So what is standing in the way of this? Two things. First, the incoming student has to have spent time thinking seriously about what he or she wants to do, prior to showing up for campus orientation. In my view, entirely too many students come to college “undecided.” Being undecided is celebrated in some quarters, but I think a basic directional goal is not asking too much of somebody who is getting ready to drop a ton of somebody’s money on a college education. Secondly, there need to be faculty advisors who are capable of understanding how these mutual objectives can be obtained in an orderly fashion and who are willing to spend the time and effort to advise the students in a comprehensive manner.

STEM and humanities together– a truly useful college education!

Vic Brown had a thirty-year career in the chemical industry with FMC Corporation, where he held senior positions and worked internationally in sales, marketing, manufacturing, information technology and procurement.


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