Like many people – perhaps more than the government seems to realise – I’ve become concerned about the way in which the humanities are being sidelined in university education, in favour of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). However, some of my remarks on this subject run the risk of being misinterpreted, so this post is intended to clarify things.
It’s been suggested that to say that universities exist “for the purpose of the humanities” is a narrow and exclusionary statement that denigrates the study of STEM subjects. Some have even asked, albeit with heavily ironic intent, whether pro-humanities advocates intend to police every university lecture theatre and seminar room to make sure that all study relates solely to the humanities.
Not at all. However, I think it is undeniably true that the historic purpose of universities has included, as a core component, the study of the humanities. Yes, there are some universities that devote themselves exclusively to STEM and do not study the humanities, but they have been seen as the exception rather than the rule. Similarly, it is undeniably true that some very fine study of the humanities has occurred – and perhaps occurs today more than ever – outside the confines of the university.
Nevertheless, it has been generally recognised that there is a profound and intimate connection between universities and the humanities. Thus to move towards a conception of the university that sees the humanities as an entirely optional component, something with no inherent connection with universities, runs the risk of causing significant damage to both.
I recognise that some supporters of the humanities do indeed have a bigoted attitude towards STEM, referring to science students as “spods” and so on – reflecting, often, their deep-rooted fears about science. However, I am not one of them, and to suggest that it is impossible to see the humanities as being essential to our understanding of the university without being motivated by a hatred of STEM is, I think, to coarsen public debate in a very regrettable manner.