The Fallacy of STEM vs Liberal Arts

by Yuan Qu | May 29, 2018

Without meaning and direction, how do we decide where to go next to affect the changes we want in life? Here at STEMed Labs, we often speak about a “chasm” which exists between the prototypical educational journey found in the classroom and the experiences and skills needed to succeed in practice. This chasm is one we all have difficulty crossing no matter how much education we receive, and sadly, some never develop the requisite skills to cross it. In the past, when things were “simple” and slow moving, there was no need to cross the chasm…at least not for most people. But as the rate of change and complexity in the world around us continues to increase, if you’re unable to cross it, you leave your fate to chance. In a society that seems determined to realize increasing income disparity which only favors the few, your odds are not good.

But it’s not all bad news.

Simply put, the chasm is the gap between rote knowledge and the ability to derive value in practice through execution. What you learn in school (including college) is useful to keep your brain healthy, but it’s rarely needed at your workplace to solve concrete problems. When you are pushed into the real world and face real problems versus homework assignments, it is as if you are back to square one. You don’t know what your next step should be when building real solutions. You might be an expert in STEM, but you will find that you spend most of your time pondering new ideas before you’ve even finished exploring the first round of ideas. What’s worse than not knowing the next step?

The kind of executive decision making under discussion here is the highest level use of your mental faculty. You can either have someone else make those decisions for you, or dive deep into the abyss to search for those answers and come out on the other side of the chasm. If only there was a type of educational curriculum that addressed this need. I’d argue, as it turns out, that liberal arts curricula addresses this need exactly. Liberal arts doesn’t teach a young child about beauty be it singing or dancing, nor does it inspire emotions for the pursuit of poetry and living beyond the bread alone. It’s especially not here to help those in their 40s to alleviate anxieties resulting from a midlife crisis. Liberal arts is the most orthodox “Western Studies”. It ranks far above practical application studies such as engineering and medicine. It is an education for decision makers, for those who rule.

Defining Liberal Arts

The “art” in liberal arts isn’t a work of art like a sculpture or literature. It is a skill and insight, as in the “Art of War” or “Art of the Deal”. It is a highly valued and sought-after skill set. Imagine your edge if you are well versed in both!

Liberal arts was originally an ancient Roman curriculum. It was deemed as a class of knowledge that must be mastered by a freeman. “Free” invokes such a vague feeling today because everyone is free; but in ancient Rome, “free” had a very clear and distinct meaning – that you are not a slave, you have rights to participate directly in civil matters, and you must manage slaves. This was considered freedom.

Liberal arts then underwent an evolution. In medieval times, it was codified into seven arts. They all contain the “Way” of ruler:

  1. Grammar, language literacy in Latin. The upper class people of different nations all used Latin. English, French, and German were only considered local dialects spoken by peasants. Mastery of Latin was required to communicate with elites from different countries. That language today is English.
  2. Logic, mechanics of thought. Only after mastering logic can you understand what you are reading.
  3. Rhetoric, to persuade other people and increase your influence.
  4. Mathematics. As an aristocrat you must know how to manage your finances.
  5. Geometry, involves rigorous induction exercises, and you also needed to understand architecture.
  6. Music, considered closely related to the laws of the world.
  7. Astronomy, which also included astrology. Music peeks into the laws of the human world. Astronomy peeks into the natural world.

Until today, western universities have evolved liberal arts. Science-related subjects were taken out and became their own field of study. History, literature and various other humanities are now included in liberal arts.

Now there are no more slaves, nor those that manage them. So what use are liberal arts? What kind of people does it now cultivate? It cultivates those with a strong sense of free will and independent character. Or, those who refuse to be ruled. Or to put it mildly, those who make their own decisions.

Regardless of the changes, the liberal art spirit didn’t change that much. You can’t take the knowledge you learned in liberal arts and directly apply them to a paying job. A liberal arts education is a mindset training regiment; it teaches soft skills.

Critical thinking and the value of Liberal Arts

The purpose of a liberal arts degree isn’t to prepare you for a specific career, but liberal arts majors are actually very welcomed in the job market. The book “Excellent Sheep” argues while engineering and computer science are the most welcomed majors, the second is liberal arts. Some would even say the mindset and thinking skills you learn from a liberal arts degree is more important than in any other major. The Wall Street Journal states that 90% of employers think three skills from liberal arts are more important than any other bachelor’s degree. These are: critical thinking, communication, and problem solving.

Critical thinking is the ability to analyze, judge, and rate things. Can you engage in independent thinking? There are many theories as to how technology has deeply impacted society. Critical thinking requires you to propose your own insights and to look for various evidence to support your idea. When you examine existing theories, you need to engage in criticism of its analysis. Criticism isn’t trash talk, though most confuse the two; it is review. Does the theory have sufficient evidence? Is the logical flow tight? Is there any bias? Are counter arguments valid? I hope you don’t need to be convinced about the importance of understanding technological impacts on society for future development in STEM.

The real world we face has a lot of problems that far surpass the usefulness of standard answers we learn from school. This is why critical thinking is even more important now that technology has caused the world to become much more complex. Critical thinking and problem solving are two sides of the same coin. One scene from “Lost in Space” (the Netflix Original version) comes to my mind. A spaceship doesn’t have enough fuel. To get it off a planet, they have to reduce the mass of the spaceship. Every subsystem “judged” to be unnecessary was taken off. How did they judge? It was a complex tradeoff between estimated flight time, operator physical condition, objective of the mission, and highly emotionally-charged arguments. Yes, you might know how to build a spaceship, but the market never quite wants to pay you what you want for what you build. A good solution for other people requires a deep understanding of their problems.

When you communicate your ideas, are you going to bombard your audiences with blueprints, jargons, numbers, and phrases that seems to exhibit more IQ than yourself? Or are you going to speak to their soul?

Complexity and the need for STEM + Liberal Arts

So does this mean you should gamble four years of youth and a six-digit figure to pursue a liberal arts degree? Certainly you might be tempted after what you’ve read thus far. But you don’t need to, unless you are really passionate about it. Everyone has an innate artist within, because everyone wants to know how the world works and has been trying to figure it out since the day they were born.

Just like you really do not always need to take advanced mathematics and physics to do your job even in STEM fields, you don’t need 4 years of arguing how many oarsmen were in Achilles' boat when they arrived at the shores of Troy to obtain liberal arts skill. The ancient Greeks argued exactly that, or at least according to Ancient Romans who could have very well been trash talking about the Greeks.

In essence, liberal arts helps us to build a mental model with which to contemplate the complicated world, which helps us to make better decisions and navigate about. To further distill it, liberal arts is about complexity navigation. Complexity exists in all fields. You can learn them all by learning just one, with adaptation and a little guidance, preferably from STEMed Labs. Liberal arts is the art of decision-making that helps you navigate the complexity of the world.

Fortunately for you, the study of complexity has taken the interest of many intellectuals. These are renowned scientists, economists, CEOs, and even Wall Street traders. Their works are fresh on the market and are drawn from live experiences, backed by data. You can either wait for the Liberal arts department to catch up with the latest scientific research on neural science, social phenomenon, and psychology, or you can go straight for those “frontier” grade materials from the market.

Or, if you are in a really tight time crunch, you can simply follow STEMed Labs to get the latest updates. So what is Liberal Arts 2.0? And what does it entail? What about the chasm mentioned earlier and the bad odds? Stayed tuned for more.