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Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education

An appreciation of racial studies and African-American history are essential in placing the accomplishments of Percy Julian in perspective.

An appreciation of racial studies and African-American history are essential in placing the accomplishments of Percy Julian in perspective.

The perennial question of the value of humanities education has been rearing its head down here in North Carolina and elsewhere. More often than not, these arguments focus 1) on the allegation that one can’t get a job in [insert humanities discipline] and 2) that education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is of far greater importance.

Remarks by our new Republican governor on a conservative talk radio show suggested that his goal was to reallocate state funds from humanities programs toward science disciplines. His stance led to an outpouring of support for the humanities but with considerable criticism of fields such as gender studies and African-American history.

My own students in a newswriting class were split on the governor’s comments. Their opinions were captured in an op-ed writing assignment where I posted the top three peer-ranked pieces over at my Forbes.com blog (by Luke Tompkins, Elizabeth Anthony, and Brian-Anthony Garrison).

Late last week, a call for support of the humanities by the STEM disciplines appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Dr. Kira Hamman, mathematics professor at Penn State Mont Alto. Her essay focuses around three points, one of which is the following:

It is the worst kind of pre-Enlightenment thinking to claim that a thing is only worth doing if it leads to economic gain. No, it is not true that a liberal-arts education decreases a person’s earning potential, but so what if it were? One of the most important things one takes away from a broad education is the understanding that there are many ways to live a good life, and not all of them include material wealth.

Of course, we all need to put food on the table. But having a science degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee employment. Even so-called alternatives to bench science careers are so competitive that jobs are scarce — science writing, for example.

But I want to come out in support of humanities education, and not just because I now have a faculty appointment in English at our state’s land-grant university.

Therefore, I’d like to assemble a list of why the humanities are important in chemistry education and/or being an employed chemist. Here’s a start from me but feel free to add more in the comments:

1.  Writing and oral communication skills are essential in chemistry and other sciences.

2.  The ability to interact with people from other cultures is increasingly important in a global, scientific economy.

3.  The rich history of chemistry is a jumping-off point for discussion of the most important advances of our discipline. Witness the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

4.  Expertise in psychology, for example, allowed a chemist to debunk Kekule’s dream in conceptualizing benzene’s structure.

5 . . . .

 

I’m looking forward to your own contributions.

 

5 Comments

  • Apr 15th 201310:04
    by Richard Van Noorden

    Reply

    Many chemists ask themselves how they can help improve people’s lives. They gain deeper answers to that question by appreciating that technology and medical advances have brought both gains and losses to society, and understanding why people resist what to the chemist seems an obvious improvement. They also appreciate how others – poets, anthropologists, sociologists, historians – can produce meaningful work that touches and changes lives, as surely as a pill or a catalyst does. Humanities helps chemists to be humble.

  • Apr 15th 201310:04
    by KJHaxton

    Reply

    The humanities provide us with research tools to better understand ourselves as scientists. They provide the research methodologies to investigate our pedagogical processes, and the societal impacts of our subject. They provide the tools to understand the ethical and cultural frameworks within which our research is embedded, and act as invigilators to ensure that science remains attached to its conscience.

  • Apr 15th 201321:04
    by Ben

    Reply

    Many of the benefits to humanities that you describe can be just as effectively (if not more so) met within the framework of science education. I’m sorry, but a technical writing course will help you communicate your research better than will a creative writing course. And the chemists that I work with are more skilled at intercultural relationships than are the humanities majors that I know. A large research lab is a veritable model UN with representatives from many cultures, countries and religions, while an English literature class is, unsurprisingly, populated by mostly English speakers. State budgets, as national budgets, are limited resources. When it comes to education, not everyone is going to be able to get all the funding that they think they deserve. Priorities must be defined and we should be happy to see a shift in our direction.

  • Apr 16th 201308:04
    by qvxb

    Reply

    The real question is, why does NC need McCrory? His statements are the best arguments for making him a one-term governor. He can always become a conservative-radio pundit and complain that the “educational elites” persecuted him.

  • Apr 22nd 201309:04
    by Matt

    Reply

    There is a reason why the area of study is called “Humanities”. This is the historical collection of the way our minds think. It is the collection of how we perceive and appreciate and express. Certainly there are individual differences with how people do these things. Humanities are how we collectively express ourselves in our culture.
    If we care about science and, subsequently, care about disseminating, discussing, and promoting science, we had better have a solid basis in the humanities in order to effectively do so.
    This argument (and many of the ones listed above) make the humanities come off as secondary to other disciplines. I and many others would argue that this is not the case. Humanities are THE primary discipline. They are primary because all of our endeavors (whether business, science, engineering, medicine, etc) that lie outside of the strict definition of “the humanities” will fall flat until they are given a sound humanistic foundation.

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