Jack Campbell and Viewpoint Editor, Laura Beveridge, debate whether the study of the STEM subjects should be favoured over the study of the Arts.
Yes – Laura Beveridge – 17%
Up until now, my entire experience of education has been defined by an ongoing conflict between the Arts and the Sciences. If you look at my Highers, they are those of a STEM student (Biology, Chemistry, Maths) as I truly believed that my time spent with the STEM subjects would be more than just a fling, yet upon filling out my UCAS form I could not bring myself to commit to the serious relationship that I had once thought to be my calling. However, even in my sub-honours years at university, I could not fully shake my love affair with maths and spent time studying calculus and trigonometry in the distant haunts of North Haugh. So, although, at present I may have consciously uncoupled with the STEM subjects and become monogamous with the Arts, I have been to the other side, eaten from their tree of knowledge, and thus, can confidently relay the insights that I have gained through such an encounter with my fellow Arts students.
There’s an unpleasant familiarity amongst Arts students with the questions “but what will you do with your degree?” and “what jobs can you even get with that?”. These questions are often asked by well-meaning grandparents who don’t really understand what you study or a distant relation who holds the opinion that all non-STEM students are lazy, time wasters (and although I have previously been known to vehemently refute such a claim, I cannot help but acknowledge that as medics are slaving away in a full day of classes, I am currently writing this article sitting in Pret, having had enjoyed a leisurely 10am wake-up, waiting for one of my two hours of lectures a week to occur).
Such questions are often followed by a humiliating stuttered response as the hurtful truth sets in that not every IR student can go onto become a UN ambassador and not every film studies student will be the next Guillermo Del Toro. This scenario often ends in defeat as I am forced to admit to myself, as I’m sure many other Arts students have once had to do, that my studies will most likely result in a life of job instability and free-lancing if I am to continue pursuing my passions or selling my soul to corporate middle-management where I doubt that I will ever get to deploy my university-gained knowledge of the nuances of Kantian philosophy.
Aside from the recurring need to espouse a defence of my degree, the Arts has also bestowed upon me the virtue of becoming an insufferably annoying conversationalist (much to my parents’ dismay over the summer break) – not even polite chatter over the morning bowl of cereal can be had without a descent into existentialism.
However, no such fate is bestowed upon one pursuing the STEM subjects. Medics and engineers will never be asked to justify the pursuit of their degree. It’s universally acknowledged that their pursuit furthers humanity as they emerge into vocations as surgeons or research scientists. Never will it be questioned in what part of life their studies will come in useful (although, as I sat staring at a formula for the cross section of a cone I did wonder in which situations knowing such would come in handy). Furthermore, parents can boast that their child will be bettering society as such degrees are not just important but vital to be studied. Surely, the fact that STEM students need not defend nor explain their pursuits at family gatherings attests to their favourability over the Arts.
But it’s not just familial relations that revere the pursuit of STEM subjects as favourable. In June of this year the Australian Government promoted its planned overhaul of university funding which will aim to steer students away from pursuing the humanities and towards STEM and vocational degrees.
In more recent times, the global pandemic demonstrated that it was not just the Australians, but the whole world, who recognised the indispensable value of the STEM subjects. No government was frantically searching for a neo-realist or Foucauldian perspective of the virus. Instead, when the country was at breaking point, they were looking to epidemiologists, immunologists, and social behaviour experts. In such circumstances, the Arts must humbly defer to the STEM subjects as the saviour of mankind (we can just skip over the fact that it was the work of novelists and film-makers that was the saviour of my own sanity during lockdown).
Indeed, one could even argue that it was Arts students that got us into this mess as PPE grad Boris Johnson and his cabinet repeatedly refused to listen to advice from scientists. In light of such, one can’t help but wonder what situation the country would be in today if STEM experts had been in charge of the country’s response to coronavirus instead. Perhaps it is a tad unfair to suggest that Johnson’s response to the pandemic was dictated by his possession of an Arts degree, but it’s still an interesting hypothetical consideration on the merits of technocracy.
Of course, in actuality, one cannot ignore the fact that the Arts and STEM subjects are truly two sides of the same coin, existing interdependently as the Sciences explain the world around us while the Arts interpret it. Perhaps, this phenomenon is best elucidated when Apple releases the newest iPhone and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror subsequently interprets it as the first horseman in the Apocalypse. However, sometimes my iPhone is just an iPhone and I don’t desire an Arts student to inform me that I’m siphoning in the end of days.
No – Jack Campbell – 83%
I must start by acknowledging that this is a valid question. In the midst of a global pandemic, one can’t help but argue that it will be the STEM majors of this world who will lead us into the light of normalcy — rushing forward like knights in shining lab coats, brandishing test tubes like virus-vanquishing swords. And beyond all reasonable doubt this will be the case. Yet even so, levels of importance need not be a zero-sum game. I argue that Arts and STEM students are so unalike as to make any comparison utterly fruitless, and those which are made come not from a perspective of reasoned analysis but rather a conditioned reflexivity in which we see the quantifiable as supreme.
Full disclosure: I am a Science student. I will graduate from St Andrews with that highly employable BSc, striding proudly out into a world where I have more social capital than the Artist inevitably reading my words. There isn’t much mystery as to why this is the case: whilst the Arts offer disciplinarians a broadening of their intellectual and emotive capacity, the Sciences offer first and foremost a ticket into a career. Whereas biology creates, for the most part, biologists, I wouldn’t expect a majority of history students to become historians; what a history student learns isn’t so much how to do “history” but rather the critical thinking skills required to approach a qualitative analysis. So too can be said of other Arts subjects, and the career trajectory of the Humanities is less well-defined as a result. We wrongly assume this comes from an inherent inferiority. This artificially lessens the humanities’ relative importance, and promotes the idea of a superiority of the Sciences.
A corollary consideration is STEM subjects’ close affiliation with hugely profitable industries. Pharmacology, finance, oil and gas — all of these sectors have a direct connection to an undergraduate degree in the Sciences and, whilst some Arts students will end up in those same fields, the Artist’s journey is again more amorphous and less ‘credible’ as a result.
However, I would argue that this stands Artists in better stead: equipped with a multidisciplinary toolbelt of softer skills, it is the Artists of the world who are more able to tackle the big social problems of our age. It is no coincidence that of all our postwar prime ministers, only one received a BSc. Our first female prime minister, she-who-shall-not-be-named, was a chemistry graduate, and arguably the most divisive British leader of the 20th century. What this tells me is that our STEM majors are better equipped to take on supporting roles in which they can provide quantitative analysis to the Artists for whom leadership is more natural and fitting.
Whether this relationship is due to education or self-selection cannot be known, but it is an interesting observation nonetheless. Because whilst the Arts offer critical reflection and debate, the Sciences require an objectively right answer. Whilst the Arts demand that one challenges the assumptions of their worldview, the Sciences prescribe a set worldview. Neither can be said to be “better” but what can be inferred is that the Artist is perhaps better trained through their studies to quite literally take on the world.
In spite of all this, gut feeling can still be the critical factor in decision-making for many people, and indeed it may just seem right that the Sciences are of more value. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains the rationale behind this “non-logic”; that whilst common sense and classical philosophy would tell us that we use reasoning to make a rational judgement, in practice it is the other way around: we instead make instinctual judgements which we then rationalise after the fact. This explains that whilst our opinion on the superiority of the Sciences may seem so obvious as not to require an argument, it is perhaps instead the case that we simply have no argument to make. To use an example, it’s like the character in Limmy’s Show who can’t quite wrap his head around a kilogram of feathers being of the same weight as a kilogram of steel. Let the feathers be the Arts, the steel the Sciences and I think you get the gist.
Yet the main reason STEM cannot be deemed more or less important than the Arts is because the two are, quite simply, incomparable. There are no scales upon which we can weigh the worth of each discipline. The Arts and the Sciences are both important, and the study of each is necessary in a fully-functioning society. In the words of Aristotle, “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. I’m inclined to agree.