We hosted Rachel Chalmers
on the podcast last week
, continuing to reinforce our brand as “the squishy heart at the centre of enterprise IT” (copyright SWMBO
). It was a pretty wide-ranging conversation, but the part I wanted to revisit here was where Rachel said “the humanities teach us what to do when STEM fails”.
Every so often, someone calls for reinventing STEM education, or bemoans the lack of STEM coverage in the standard curriculum. There is a lot less talk of the inverse, including more humanities coverage in the STEM curriculum.
I have some experience of both sides of this debate. I went to high school in Italy, where students don’t get to choose individual subjects, but can choose to attend different types of high school, each of which has its own specialisation on top of a core of standard subjects.
The particular high school I chose was a liceo classico, meaning that I studied Latin, Classical Greek, history and philosophy, and so on. Mine was actually an experimental school, so we did study some maths, chemistry, and biology, but the last two especially were very definitely secondary subjects, and none of them were part of the final exam — the dreaded maturità.
Armed with this humanities-heavy education, I naturally chose to study computing science at university — and to do it in England. Partly I just wanted to leave home, but partly I wanted hands-on instruction; I had had quite enough of dry exposition at the chalkboard, and trying to memorise tables of gerunds!
At the time, Italian universities taught computer science as an offshoot of engineering, meaning that the first three years (of five) were basically some pretty hardcore mathematics, very little of which was directly relevant to computer science. It was hard enough for actual engineering students — the exams of Analisi 1 and Analisi 2 were bogeymen for all of my engineer friends, to the point that it was notable for anyone to pass them both on the first attempt, and they were usually assumed to be the reason for someone to drop out or change their degree. Even once you did get on to actual programming, it was still mostly theory; a family friend graduated from university the same year I graduated from high school, and only touched a computer to type up her thesis…
The British education system that I entered worked rather differently. First of all, my peers had all been able to choose their own subjects for the previous several years, and many of them had attended one-year colleges before coming to university, in which they specialised further in STEM subjects. Secondly, we dived straight into hands-on instruction, learning Java through programming exercises rather than through exhaustive (and exhausting!) education on the theory of object-oriented programming.
On paper, you might have expected me, the product of a completely different education system, who had not even taken maths all the way to the final exam, to struggle against people who had been preparing for a STEM degree for several years. In fact, I didn’t even get into my first-choice university (UMIST) because I could not supply a maths grade. My explanation that I was literally not going to be examined in maths fell on deaf ears — or maybe convinced the admissions office to have nothing to do with me, who knows.
Not only did I not struggle unduly with the computer science curriculum, even when it came to the sorts of matrix algebra needs for 3D graphics (except the one C++ course that was graded with a multiple-choice test —feh), but I also had (of course) a much richer humanities background than any of my fellow-students, which made me a feared player at Trivial Pursuit, as long as I stayed away from the showbiz questions.
I might have achieved this mixed education more by luck than by good judgment, but the more I have interacted with people who had different educational backgrounds, the more convinced I am that something like my mixed education is going to be a better outcome outside of straightforward vocational training. I learned a baker’s dozen of programming languages at university, most of which are now obsolete — but that breadth gave me concepts that I was able to leverage to learn new languages and techniques as I needed them. Because I had not learned only practical STEM techniques, I also had other skills that I could combine to make me a more rounded professional and indeed person — from writing (hi), to philosophy that gave me the tools to think about ethical questions, to a whole intellectual toolkit that I could use to sift and evaluate information, avoiding cults, scams, and bandwagons.
It turns out, a firm grounding in the classics sets you up well for life on the Internet. This is not something that you could plan for, or draw a straightforward cost-benefit analysis for, but it’s still true.
The sort of simplified STEM curriculum that most people have in mind — practical skills that are immediately relevant for employers — is not a well-rounded education. It’s basically vocational training, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and absolutely has its uses, but it’s rather different from what people generally think when they hear the word “university”.
Generalising wildly, the product of a British or American undergraduate degree is ready to enter work immediately in their field of study, but with a fairly narrow base outside that field. The product of continental European universities instead is often less well-prepared for immediate work, but after a few years of experience, they can leverage that broad base into becoming much better-rounded professionals than their Anglo counterparts.
Calls to include more STEM subjects in education are not wrong, but I worry that they end up being either too abstract to be obviously useful, or too narrowly focused to be generalisable. Either one is a mistake, and it will be by threading between these Scylla and Charybdis that we can avoid the sorts of monsters produced by the sleep of reason, without falling into the sort of simplistic “Two Cultures” discourse popularised by C.P. Snow.