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Undergraduate Education

Behind the scenes at the STEM-humanities culture war

Chemistry faculty cite the importance of humanities in a scientist’s undergraduate education

by Rick Mullin
July 16, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 29


A generic picture of a brick college campus building
Credit: Shutterstock
There is a groundswell of enthusiasm on US campuses for enhancing the balance between science and the humanities.

Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report that advocates a return to a traditional mode of liberal education that balances science and the humanities. The consensus report examines the evidence behind an assertion that education programs integrating the arts, humanities, and sciences lead to improved educational and career outcomes. It takes its subtitle, “Branches from the Same Tree,” from an Albert Einstein quote on science, religion, and the arts. Earlier this year, the National Academies introduced the report at a conference they hosted in Washington, DC.

The committee that authored the report quickly found that it had entered a realm that defies large, controlled, randomized testing of hypotheses. The report acknowledges that given the variety of institutions, student backgrounds, and approaches to curriculum development, hard numbers are hard to come by. Anecdotal findings, however, indicate a “groundswell in interest” among educators in integrating, or reintegrating, disciplines, the report states.

The report arrives at a time when anecdotes also abound about dwindling humanities departments at colleges around the US. Budget cuts that began in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis have resulted in some schools eliminating courses and degrees in subjects, such as foreign languages, art, and history, that loan-burdened students and their parents increasingly view as irrelevant to getting a job after graduation. The number of students graduating with degrees that do not fall into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) category has dropped significantly in recent years.

Discussions with both humanities and science faculty shatter a perception that academia is tightening its focus on the sciences at the expense of the humanities. But chemistry faculty cite increased pressure to pack more science into a 4-year course of study. Some are redesigning chemistry curricula with the goal of making graduates more employable in specific career areas such as computational chemistry and health-care science. Observations vary, however, on what employers are looking for, and there is a distinct concern among faculty that chemistry students could be negatively affected by reduced exposure to the humanities.

According to Charles Blaich, director of the Center of Inquiry and the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium at Wabash College, there is a trend toward increased specialization in curricula. “And it’s not unique to STEM,” he says. “A lot of major institutions are requiring more credits within majors, restricting the time for outside courses. They are increasing the number of courses you need to take to complete those degrees, and it’s a zero-sum game.”

He cites findings of the consortium’s Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, a longitudinal survey that began in the early 2000s, with the latest data from 2011. While it does not directly address the impact of deemphasizing humanities in STEM curricula, it does support the National Academies’ findings that an integrated approach to learning improves results.

In fact, there is broad consensus that STEM students benefit from exposure to the humanities, despite the dearth of hard metrics. “There is value to helping students develop skills across different intellectual domains,” says Robert Townsend, director of humanities indicators at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “but the actual statistical evidence to prove that really hasn’t been developed yet. As a numbers guy, I’m frustrated.”

What can be counted, he says, is the number of degrees granted by subject area. The latest data available from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that the number of degrees awarded annually in the US dropped by more than 10% in almost every subject in the humanities and social sciences between 2011 and 2017. In the same period, the number of degrees awarded rose in all STEM subjects.

Deborah Fitzgerald, a professor of the history of technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sees troubling indicators of humanities on the skids as a result of economic pressures. While top technical universities and elite colleges are not shifting curricula away from humanities course requirements for science majors, some state schools are. “Their boards just don’t think they are important anymore,” she says.

Fitzgerald, who served as dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences from 2006 to 2015, notes that top engineering schools are not immune to social and economic pressures that are framing STEM degrees as the route to a successful career. “Knowing science kind of stands in for smartness in a way that knowing Shakespeare used to stand in for that,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s a placeholder for ‘my kid is a smart kid.’ The danger is in the parents of kids at elite universities who really think their kids just have to zero in on that science,” she says.

Knowing science kind of stands in for smartness in a way that knowing Shakespeare used to stand in for that.”
Deborah Fitzgerald, professor of the history of technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

And viewing the college experience as job training poses an obvious threat to higher education, Fitzgerald says. “If you are trying to create people who can be leaders in their field as well as tip-top citizens, able to comprehend what is going on in politics and economics,” she says, “then you really have to have a broader education.”

The broad approach at MIT requires undergraduates to take at least eight classes over the course of 4 years in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, Fitzgerald says. Students are generally enthusiastic about studying in the liberal arts as they pursue technical and science-oriented degrees, she says, and there is a clear benefit to their doing so.

“I’ve taught for 30 years at MIT, and my view is that, by and large, science and engineering students are really old-fashioned positivists,” says Fitzgerald, who has a PhD in history and sociology of science and technology from the University of Pennsylvania. Their love for science is largely based on their confidence that it solves problems beyond just technical ones, she says. “They just have an uncritical faith in the power of science and technology. So we find that they need to be shaken out of that a little bit. They need to understand that the problems they are going to encounter in the world are not going to be as tidy as the ones they encounter at MIT.”

Amit Basu, an associate professor of chemistry at Brown University, agrees. Brown, he notes, takes an open-curriculum approach in which students craft their own course of study around core subjects required for specific degrees. Such a format attracts students interested in supplementing science with liberal arts.

All students at Brown, however, must take at least two writing courses under what’s called the WRIT requirement. “And there are chemistry courses that are structured as WRIT courses,” incorporating a written communications component, says Basu. Last semester, Basu added an art assignment to his upper-level organic chemistry class as a way to foster novel means of thinking about and communicating science (read more about the class here).

A graph shows the decline in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in the US between 2011 and 2017.
STEM surge
Between 2011 and 2017 most humanities and arts fields experienced a decline in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in the US, while science and engineering fields experienced an increase.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics/Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

“Being able to communicate your science is an important part of being a scientist,” Basu says. “Being able to communicate in an audience-specific manner is also important.” In this aim, a chemistry student is best served by a course of study integrating liberal arts with the sciences, he says.

Jeffrey Seeman, a visiting research scholar specializing in the history of chemistry at the University of Richmond, also places great stock in the study of humanities as part of the undergrad curriculum in the sciences. “To the extent that one wants a professional life that is STEM oriented,” he says, “it is wise to have the prerequisites necessary for such a future. At the same time, it is critical to have an appreciation for the broader sense of what it means to be a human being living in this universe.”

Colleges and universities, however, may be trending toward a tighter focus on core subjects, he says. Chemistry faculty, dealing with increased complexity of subject matter and a concern for fostering critical thinking, are including more core material in the major. Still, he says, the core course requirements at the University of Richmond have stayed basically the same for 20 years, and science majors have the same general education requirements as all other majors.

Competition between departments at universities also presents challenges in developing integrated curricula, he says. For example, there are controversies over who should teach the history of chemistry and science, he says. “Historians believe only they should teach it. But there aren’t enough historians of science at universities.”

Headshot of Chris Palmer in front of a colorful periodic table.
Credit: Courtesy of Chris Palmer
Chris Palmer at the University of Montana is concerned that students and their parents are too focused on STEM studies as a guarantee of immediate employment after graduation.

Christopher P. Palmer, chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at the University of Montana, is also concerned about student-loan pressure increasing the expectation of students and their parents that degrees will translate into immediate employment.

He has to explain to students that their first jobs might last only a year and that their careers could change dramatically over the span of decades. Courses in writing, ethics, history, and other non-STEM subjects will provide a foundation for career development, Palmer says.

But that foundation is taking a hit campus-wide. Last year the university announced that it would cut its budget by $5 million, eliminating 58 faculty positions—though sparing tenured faculty—by 2021. Global humanities and religion majors and minors have been eliminated, and six current majors within the modern and classical languages and literature have been consolidated into a single major in world languages and cultures.

Palmer notes that staff cuts have affected the chemistry department too. Five professors recently retired, and only one new professor was hired. As a result, an ethics course taught by department faculty was eliminated, he says.

The University of Texas at Austin is not facing severe budget reduction, but its Chemistry Department is being overhauled. Changes are typical of the trend toward packing more core subject matter into a 4-year curriculum.

A scientist, Simon Humphrey, wearing protective eyewear and a lab coat in the lab, pointing to a white balloon that is filling with something, probably a gas.
Credit: Courtesy of Simon Humphrey
Simon Humphrey is leading a major curriculum revamp aimed at making University of Texas at Austin chemistry graduates more employable.

“We have done quite a lot of curriculum reform in the last 2 years,” says Simon Humphrey, an associate professor of chemistry. “More so than has been done in the last 20. The primary goal of all of this stuff is to make our students more employable.” The changes were prompted by a poll taken of graduates on what they did after graduation. “It was kind of disappointing how few of them were using their chemistry degree to do something that required any kind of STEM degree,” he said.

Over the past 2 years, Humphrey’s group has redesigned upper-level courses, adding requirements for internships or study abroad and establishing six areas of specialization that students choose from to direct their junior- and senior-year studies. New focus areas may include classes taken in the physics, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering departments.

As for non-STEM requirements, “that is a tight line we have to tread with the provost’s office,” which determines general education requirements, Humphrey says. “My job is to make sure students are getting as rigorous an education in the sciences as possible,” Humphrey says, adding that the department always has an eye toward “stepping up the complexity and not allowing the constant erosion of skills.”

Humphrey is confident that UT Austin maintains a decent balance of STEM and non-STEM, which is important, “because even the best chemist might decide to go and be a hedge-fund manager,” he says. He notes that, in addition to a bachelor of science degree, the university offers bachelor of science and arts and even bachelor of arts degrees in chemistry. Most students choose to pursue BS or BSA degrees, the difference between the two boiling down to the number of courses not within the core sciences, Humphrey says. BS students will still be required to take the minimum number of humanities courses, including a foreign language, required by the university.

Photo of Frederick Turner wearing a floppy hat and sunglasses hiking under a cloudy sky.
Credit: Courtesy of Frederick Turner
Frederick Turner, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas's School of Arts and Humanities, sees integrated curricula as a return to tradition in higher education.

Meanwhile, at the University of Texas at Dallas, the School of Arts and Humanities maintains a tradition of making sure that its arts and humanities majors are exposed to science and technology, according to Frederick Turner, a professor of literature and creative writing. Turner was involved, 20 years ago, in the formation of an arts and technology curriculum that was spun off as the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at the university.

I don’t believe we have any systematic way of imagining or hypothesizing other than the humanities.”
Frederick Turner, Founders Professor of Literature and Creative Writing, University of Texas at Dallas

“I am very interdisciplinary,” says Turner, who has written science-fiction novels and coauthored papers with scientists, including one on poetry and human processing of information written with psychologist and neuroscientist Ernst Pöppel.


A push to foster integrated education is, for Turner, a push for reconciliation or a kind of return to a natural state in the Western intellectual tradition lost over the past 150 years. “I don’t believe you can separate facts from values,” he says. “I don’t believe we can understand the humanities without understanding something about human biology. At the same time, I don’t believe we have any systematic way of imagining or hypothesizing other than the humanities.”

Members of the National Academies committee that authored “Branches from the Same Tree” have been on the road, visiting colleges and universities since the report debuted. Ashley Bear, senior program officer for the National Academies’ Higher Education and Workforce Board and the study director for the report, says the groundswell in support of integration is palpable. But the landscape remains siloed.

“The faculty in these departments don’t come in contact physically, much less in their scholarship,” she says. “But it’s absolutely true that there are all these pockets of faculty and administrators that have incredible enthusiasm and real passion that this approach is the approach we should be offering to students.”


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