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Oh the Humanities! — The Importance of Arts in STEM Education

Lifestyle & Opinion

By Cory Cox

I’m an engineer by study, by passion, and by trade. My major is highly mathematical and my job is highly technical. In the world of technology, ideas follow rigid rules of logic, and problems are solved by careful analysis of cause-and-effect. There are no Ghosts in machines, there are only wrenches in the works that have yet to be found. This manner of thinking is useful for formulaic tasks, but can hinder one’s ability to truly create. New ideas, concepts, and inventions are not brought forth by following a recipe from a handbook. The building, testing, and dissemination of these ideas is done through a set of well-documented processes, sure. But nothing groundbreaking ever been spontaneously generated from following the rules to the letter, as this defies the very definition of the work “groundbreaking.”

In the study of art history, there is a common theme among the artists that we revere. The artists that most of us can name off the top of our heads did not become renowned by submitting to a status quo, they challenged traditional ideals. By rejecting the commonly-held beliefs of the era, these artists changed the world and thereby became immortal. With one of his more famous paintings, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Edouard Manet sparked outrage among the jury of the French Academy of Art in 1863. With its depiction of a nude woman between two clothed men, his painting made a mockery of the traditional ideals held by the schools of the time. That, coupled with its intentional use of unrealistic perspective and inconsistent texturing, landed it a less-than-honorable spot at the “Exhibit of Rejects.” When it was exhibited to the public, it sparked great controversy and was eventually seen for the work of genius that it was. This landmark work changed the world of art forever.

Changing the world is exactly what we in the STEM community set out to do at the beginning of every day. That is difficult to do, however, when one’s entire education has focused on the rigid application of mathematics. Applying conventional knowledge to solving everyday problems may work for the most part, but your solutions will end up boring and predictable. In the 1800s, people fantasized about a future with steam-powered flying machines and advanced carriages. Early in the last century, people saw a future dominated by zeppelins, and then nuclear-powered spacecraft. Nowhere in their wildest dreams did they imagine the proliferation of iPhones and the unprecedented acceleration of progress that would be brought on by instant worldwide communication. Today, we have the chance to open our minds more to what the future holds, and take a different perspective than the one currently held in the collective conscience. The study of art can wire our brains to imagine changes that a traditional outlook cannot offer.

Including humanities in a curriculum designed for students in a highly technical discipline can enhance their worldview and bring creativity to their respective fields. Ultimately, the goal of a university should not be to educate workers to do well in their jobs, but to create individuals that can bring about tangible change to society through true innovation. I have heard fellow students complaining about the requirement of liberal arts in a science degree. This manner of thinking overlooks the influence of creative thought on scientific progress. In any field, be it engineering, chemistry, or architecture, the study of humanities can give a student a powerful tool for creation and allow them to think outside their toolbox. Humanities can progress human progress. Learn art, change the world.

Header photo from ashleycox.org

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