Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education
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:
An appreciation of racial studies and African-American history are essential in placing the accomplishments of Percy Julian in perspective.
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.