STEM and Roots
By Joseph J. Fins, MD
As spring finally came to the Northeast, my favorite Japanese Maple showed signs of the harsh winter. It failed to blossom, or more accurately only one half of the tree began to sprout leaves. The other part had dried up, its burgundy bark now brown and lifeless, looking more like kindling than neighboring branches.
It was a sad sight and I wondered why a tree could fail to blossom across its breadth, to die by half. I consulted the internet for guidance and learned that Japanese Maples are susceptible to their roots drying out and when this happens the stems above will die too.
More into metaphor than botany, I wondered if there was a message in what I had observed for the academy, specifically the discussion about the state of science education and the crisis afflicting the humanities. When we speak of the former we voice concern about STEM, science, technology, engineering and math. A week does not go by without dire predictions about the K-12 pipeline and how America will not produce enough scientists to remain competitive. When the science Casandras are in abeyance, the worry turns to the humanities and its eroding mission.
Though both issues are topics of frequent commentary, the two topics rarely cross, either when thinking about cause and effect, or when considering remedies. And that’s where my half-dead Japanese Maple comes in. Not to over-stretch the metaphor: there is no STEM where there are no roots.
Here the roots are the humanities and our traditions of knowing dating back to antiquity. They are the wellspring for the sciences and provide context and meaning to efforts to understand the natural world. One can not address the sciences without the humanities. To do so would be to consider the health of my beleaguered tree and disregard the state of the roots because they were out of view and seemingly irrelevant.
But that would be a critical error of omission. The leaves above died because the roots below had become frail. The interdependence between the leaves and roots is like that between the many branches of knowledge within the university. Each is dependent upon the other and sustained by being part of a larger whole.
To be viable, as a living organism with epistemic integrity, a university has to work as a unit. That’s something Aristotle would have understood as a philosopher and botanist. In those roles, he would have had wise counsel for the care of my tree. Through his life narrative he modeled a synthetic approach to knowledge. Aristotle’s cultivation of practical knowledge, or phronesis, was not the product of the sciences or philosophy in isolation but rather their integration in meaningful work, deeds and ends. Not withstanding the millennia that have passed since his example, there is value in appreciating that the remedy to the STEM or humanities crisis can not be resolved by reforms that tackle each separately.
The sciences and the humanities should not be isolated from each other or perceived as competitive but appreciated as intertwined. The historical and cultural inheritance of the humanities place science into context, providing guidance for the conduct of responsive and responsible research. In turn, scientific advance presents the humanities with new ways of asking age old questions, tempering empiricism with commentary and bringing values to numbers. The remedy is not sequestration but better integration.
I come to this conclusion drawing upon my experience majoring in Wesleyan University’s College of Letters, an interdisciplinary program in history, literature and philosophy, while also pursuing pre-medical studies. As an academic physician and medical ethicist, I utilize the sciences and the humanities on a daily basis. The humanities have deepened my appreciation of the implications of scientific advance just as the sciences have provided my work in bioethics the opportunity for instrumental engagement with real life problems. The disciplines, working together create balance.
How might we structure the undergraduate curriculum to achieve this balance for others? At a minimum graduating college students should have enough humanities to place their scientific studies into context and enough science to participate in civic choices that require science literacy. The precise amount for each student will depend upon one’s undergraduate major and plans for graduate or professional study but everyone should get a meaningful quanta of the humanities and the sciences to complement their particular area of study.
Students who intend to pursue in-depth graduate studies in the sciences or the humanities should adopt a contrarian approach to their “home” discipline. They should seek more general education than specialization to foster novel connections between their area of specialization and broader scholarship in the university.
To foster this deeper ramification, universities might rethink major requirements to allow undergraduates to take course which will be unavailable to them as graduate students. Interdisciplinary capstone projects should be encouraged, not to dilute one’s depth of study but to broaden its reach.
I can think of fruitful examples: the aspiring artist who learns about the chemistry of her palette; the dual philosophy-chemistry major who becomes an innovative medicinal chemist; the one time biology major who learns how patent law influences discovery and innovation en route to law school; or the neuroscientist whose research was inspired by a college thesis in the history of science.
One never knows where these early intersections lead but they are bound to be synthetic and promote creativity, helping students appreciate the possibilities and limits of serious study, a sort of discernment that should be the hallmark of liberal learning.
Undergrads who have studied both the sciences and the humanities become resilient hybrids, more adaptive and agile. Within a workforce struggling with science illiteracy and an inability to cross the proverbial “two culture divide,” these broadly schooled students are be better to able explain their ideas and make connections that elude others. They will make contributions we can only imagine and desperately need, existential challenges like the winter cold that almost killed my Japanese Maple.
Joseph J. Fins, M.D. is The E. William Davis, Jr., M.D. Professor of Medical Ethics and Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. He is the author of the forthcoming Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics and the Struggle for Consciousness (Cambridge University Press, TBD) and a Trustee-Emeritus of Wesleyan University.