The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The Liberal Arts Need More STEM

hyperrealistic graphic art of an origami Shakespeare holding a calculator

A magnificent glass-clad skyscraper gracefully rising up to the sky, a photograph that perfectly exhibits the golden ratio, or a clear, life-like computer animation––we either admire the artistry involved in these remarkable feats or marvel at the exhaustive technical expertise that made them possible.

Rarely, however, do we even appreciate how the two are intertwined. There is an artistic element to the mathematical sciences that frequently goes unnoticed, and there is a mathematical aspect to the arts and humanities that almost never garners attention. These two halves of human inquiry complement each other in beautiful ways.

However, in college settings, science and art rarely overlap, and those who study one all too often ignore the value of the other. One of the most frustrating things for me as I began my college experience was seeing my peers in non-STEM fields weasel their way out of general requirements for the mathematical sciences. While I was taking advanced theory classes for my bachelor of science in computer science, my peers in these other fields enrolled in classes that offered little to no technical instruction. 

This phenomenon, of course, is somewhat a side effect of a liberal arts education. The liberal arts model of education emphasizes the development of communication, reasoning, and critical thinking through courses in the humanities or social sciences. While curriculums require some mathematical training, they usually fail to equip students with the broader analytical skills crucial for career success.

In order to prepare all students––especially those not in the mathematical sciences––for the world during this age of data and information, colleges should implement stricter and more useful requirements in mathematics, statistics, or computer science.

I find the perception of the mathematical sciences as inflexible, monolithic fields of study only utilized by those who deeply understand it to be disingenuous. Unfortunately, this notion is perpetuated by both those who are outside and within the mathematical sciences alike. The ubiquity of numbers and strange symbols that appear in these subjects are daunting to those who prefer to study literature and the arts, and they seem hardly relevant to their fields of study. And, those who study science and math have a stake in keeping an aura of incomprehensibility around their fields.

To use the mathematical sciences, however, an intimate knowledge of the field is not essential. One of the most useful tools in many job environments today is Python, a high-level programming language that is designed to be more readable than other languages like C or Java. It contains many libraries––prewritten collections of modules and “functions”––that are free and easy to use, even for those who are not experienced coders. 

Students with knowledge of a field within the humanities can leverage Python’s extensive capabilities in creative ways. I could imagine a literature student using spaCy, a natural language processing library, to quickly analyze a text. Web scraping libraries like BeautifulSoup make it easy to scrape websites for content, which might be helpful for humanities majors searching online newspapers or archives. 

The past few decades have seen a drop in the number of humanities majors, as many students seek degrees that have a greater rate of employment. In fact, while the number of individuals majoring in English dropped by 23%, the number majoring in computer or information sciences rose by 34%. Current undergraduates are responding to the direction of the job market, which will increase the number of STEM-related jobs by nearly 8%––a greater increase than any other field. 

The reality is that the job market is evolving toward more data-driven, analytics-based roles. While the writing, discussing, reasoning, and communication skills developed within the humanities are valuable, they may only be a differentiating factor when an individual has the hard skills to back them up.

If colleges are able to equip students with technical skills (perhaps experience using Python, as I previously mentioned, or database languages like SQL), they would be able to make studying the humanities more appealing to prospective students who seek a higher-paying job out of college.

The key is that we should not be funneling undergraduates into more “practical” or “employable” majors, but rather equipping all students with an education that’s practical and employable. Students entering higher education should be motivated to pursue their true interests purely out of curiosity.

In a way, that is what higher education is for––to explore one’s interests to the fullest extent, under the guidance of professors who are experts in those fields. Some may consider this to be an outdated idea, but it should not be: students gain more from their education when they are curious and interested in what they’re studying.

Equipping humanities majors with these skills will also greatly benefit the workplaces that they will inhabit. As I mentioned earlier, the mathematical sciences are extremely flexible, and they should be leveraged by individuals who deeply understand other fields of study. The majority of individuals who will fill these newly created jobs will be those who deeply understand a STEM field. Humanities students who have developed robust technical skills can give workplaces the opportunity to leverage their perspectives and knowledge sets in ways that were not previously possible.

In a fast-paced, data-driven economy, these perspectives are important to keeping technological development in check. For example, what advice might a historian give on the use of artificial intelligence? What would an anthropologist say about how companies use our data? These are important perspectives, but only insofar as they understand how the technology actually works. The hard skills developed in mathematical sciences may allow humanities students to contribute in these spaces, working on and advancing technology. 

Aside from the job opportunities, teaching the mathematical sciences more rigorously will equip students with important qualitative skills. Knowing how to conduct a hypothesis test, run a regression, or construct a formal proof might seem useless to a non-STEM major, but they may eventually find themselves in a situation where they need to present a qualitative hypothesis, understand the results of a regression, or form a logical argument. These skills may not explicitly deal with numbers or mathematics, but the underlying reasoning is critical to being a valuable member of one’s workplace.

We should treat the mathematical sciences, and the skills they develop, as flexible tools that can be used in a variety of contexts. In the same way that writing an essay on the Aeneid does not make one a classics major, writing a Python script does not make one a computer scientist. Colleges emphasize the development of strong communication and reasoning skills through humanities courses because, no matter what career a student decides to pursue, they will need to convey their ideas clearly and concisely.

The same idea should be applied in the other direction—the analytical skills developed in the mathematical sciences give students more tools to effectively pursue their fields of study. And when it comes to the data-driven demands of the job market, all students would have nothing to worry about. 

The liberal arts model of education that most colleges have adopted heavily focuses on the softer skills developed in humanities classes. For the analytical skills associated with mathematical sciences, it’s time they do the same. 

Luke Contreras is a student at the University of Chicago studying computer science and economics. You can read more of his work at the Chicago Maroon.

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