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STEM and the Humanities: a False Dichotomy

2013 Graduate College Distinguished Lecture

University of Illinois

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

University of Illinois Graduate College Address Urbana, IL
United States

April 17, 2013

By perspective, it took several centuries for Pax Romana to unravel, less than two generations for Athenian culture to fall from its 5th Century BC pinnacle, and only a couple of decades  for two advanced European cultures to become captive  to fascist and communist dogma and the ultimate human degradation – the Holocaust, the gulag, and  the numbing liquidation of millions. These monumental shifts stand as forewarnings for all peoples in all societies and underscore the gravity of our responsibility to each other and to posterity.

In American governance, process is our most important product. We instinctively treasure our democratic values and frequently have trumpeted them as a model for the world. Today our confidence has eroded a bit. In exasperation and more than a little anger, American citizens are increasingly using the adjective "dysfunctional" to describe Washington politics.  We have had more difficult times in our  history. Far greater political intransigence, for instance, was reflected in the decade leading  up to the Civil War. Nevertheless, it is jarring for the public to see budgets put together in a crisis manner. There is fair reason at all times for philosophical disagreements to be aired between the political parties. But the greater our problems, the more important it is for the political establishment to work out differences related to divided government in an open and respectful manner.

At the moment, America leads the world in almost every academic field, but a crisis is looming in the humanities as publicly supported research has increasingly become focused on laboratories rather than libraries. The key for the future is to establish a responsible balance, one that need not be defined as equality of public research spending.  Scientific research, after all, is substantially more expensive than humanistic inquiries. But a balance of concern should be sought that recognizes that the humanities and areas of study included in STEM are intertwined. In his prescient 1950 report Science the Endless Frontier which led to the formation of the National Science Foundation, Vannevar Bush recognized the complementary nature of each endeavor. He wrote: “It would be folly to set up a program under which research in the natural sciences and medicine was expanded at the cost of the social sciences, humanities, and other studies so essential to national well-being.”

In recent months arts advocates have made a thoughtful case that the letter "a" be added to STEM to underscore the creative impulses that are freed across culture by the arts. A vivid example of the tie between the arts and sciences is reflected in a quote from a prominent 19th Century portrait painter, Daniel Huntington, who wrote of his mentor, Samuel F.B. Morse: "Professor Morse's world-wide fame rests... on his invention of the electrical telegraph; but it should be remembered that the qualities of mind which led to it were developed in the progress of his art studies.  For Morse, a distinguished painter and founder of the National Academy of Design, every studio was "more or less a laboratory."  Similarly, the lives of 18th Century scholars and statesmen who were also scientists and inventors like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the Russian polymath, Mikhail Lomonosov, illustrate how the humanities and the sciences are conjoined manifestations of similar creative impulses.

It is sometimes appropriate and helpful to distinguish parts from the whole. Yet the big picture in higher education isn't about pitting parts against each other. The challenge today is to strengthen all the parts to make a greater whole.

Both the acronyms STEM and STEAM have merit, but to provide a fuller balance the academic community might consider unifying in support of itself. At the risk of presumption and cheerful hyperbole, I would suggest that "HUMANASTEAM" might be an appropriate rallying term.  It is a conceptualization unlikely to make a dictionary, or even a t-shirt. Nonetheless, a "HUMANASTEAM" thematic fits the times because there simply is no credible basis for intra-collegiate academic conflict.

I have never come across a humanist who does not support the sciences, nor a scientist who does not support the arts and humanities.  There are, however, public figures who are expressing grave doubts about the relevance of the liberal arts, even political science which Aristotle described as the highest art. How should the academy respond?

As head of an institution devoted to the humanities, I have an obligation to defend the field and at the same time emphasize concert with the arts and the natural and social sciences.