Sciences versus humanities

Not many of these posts talk shop but this one will.  Paddington wrote:

The US and English systems should be producing a better ‘yield’ of the STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) people that we need, yet they are not.

He put it down to inclusive and exclusive educational systems and he’s not wrong but it still doesn’t answer the question completely as to why students shy away from the STEM subjects.  I replied:

There was an attempt by our national curriculum, circa 1992, to produce STEM outcomes and it was weighted towards science. In fact, if you were a science or maths teacher, you walked into a job.

However, they had to backtrack around 1994 and reorient towards the humanities. A lot of that had to do with soft option/hard option.

In Russia, the financial institute in our city was dominated by girls, as were the language faculties, where I was.  STEM though was still male-weighted.  Leaving aside the gender differences and looking at overall numbers of institutions – there were five different technical institutes to one humanities but around 2008, things had changed somewhat and the same move as in the west had begun to take place – humanities oriented.

I found this an interesting article by a science professor:

Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). American science no longer offers a reasonable career path.

If you go to graduate school in science it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research, using your ingenuity and curiosity to solve important and interesting problems. You will almost certainly be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another career.

He may have a point but it still doesn’t seem to answer the question of why students don’t like the sciences as a study path.  This article tries to answer the question, putting forward a series of hypotheses to explore:

* It is taught poorly, which kills the student’s interest.

* It is challenging in the sense of what it requires from the student: dedication, attention to detail, discipline and constant practice.

* Formal education tends to divide the universe into “subjects” that appear to have little to do with each other.

* It gets bad press, from dull textbooks and incomprehensible news reports to mad scientists in movies … It is the province of nerds and geeks.

* Science, especially physics, is portrayed as antithetical to art so people who write or paint or make music are naturally turned off by it.

* Science is the handmaiden of industry and war and is therefore off-putting. It is owned by the powerful, and those in the lower levels of the hierarchy do not feel a sense of connection and ownership with respect to science.

* Science is a boy thing and therefore not something that can be done by girls, or should be done by girls.

* Scientists are notoriously poor communicators, with some happy exceptions who write about it well, but then you have to know a certain amount of science and have some liking for it in order to appreciate their work.

I sub-majored in biology for the very reason that I found it difficult, didn’t understand it and did not possess the mindset to think my way through it.  I was determined to overcome all that, ending up with  a second class honour.  I’d not return to it – too tough altogether.

Ditto with computer technology.  Composing webpages with CSS sheets is dead easy but give me something requiring PHP and I’m gone.  My mate gave me an old book on PHP, requiring a PC to follow and as I didn’t have one [being Mac-oriented] and as it was so difficult anyway, I didn’t follow it through.

Lastly, the online educational programmes in science seem to lag behind those of, say, languages, there are less people to develop them and even the concept of education is a humanities oriented field.  The government and industry can rant about it, pour money into it and talk it up but if students just aren’t interested or can’t handle the material, there’s very little which can be done.

Basically, in order to create an educational programme in, say, physics, at Years 6, 7 and 8, you first need to know your stuff.  Now, because of the non-integration across disciplines, you can find someone who knows his/her stuff but can he create educational programmes?  Does he understand developmental levels of children?  Did he ever study those?

Ditto with the educator.  As his field has never been the sciences, except in general science, the nitty-gritty of the content in the programme and the best way to show the particular scientific principle may not occur to her/him.

The logical solution is to take someone, e.g. a scientist or economist or mathematician, put him/her with someone who understands a certain amount of the material but who is basically an educator, e.g. me and then the two devise a series of educational programmes, then get together with a marketing person to disseminate them.

There are programmes out there – faculties don’t run on thin air – but they don’t seem to ahve got students in, in any numbers.  Not so far.

8 comments for “Sciences versus humanities

  1. alastair harris
    February 22, 2011 at 14:55

    but why lump them all together? Science and Mathematics are academic – technology and engineering are not. very different things.

    the poorly taught excuse fails – or at least applies to any discipline you care to mention. Good teachers are good teachers, whatever they teach, and there are not too many of them out there.

  2. February 22, 2011 at 15:49

    That’s fair. One’s applied, one’s pure. So I’d imagine it’s the academic side which is suffering from lack of take up.

  3. February 22, 2011 at 17:30

    I’m reminded of the question: What Use is Maths?

    http://www.samizdata.net/blog/archives/2008/02/what_use_is_mat.html

    Best regards

  4. February 23, 2011 at 07:54

    “I am aghast …

    Mathematics is the language of science, engineering and other technology. Without maths, almost all of the machines we rely on for our modern lifestyle would not exist, and we would be a primitive society.

    In order to demonstrate this, to the sceptic, one way would have to take each particular bit of technology that we use and analyse how it works and how it was developed. This could be very time-consuming, and difficult for the ‘recipient’ who would probably struggle with why everything is so complicated.”

    – Sedgwick, N, Feb 19, 2008

  5. Andrew Duffin
    February 23, 2011 at 16:38

    Go and look at the salaries offered for new graduate hard scientists cf. newly-qualified accountants and lawyers.

    Then tell me again that you can’t understand why kids don’t want to study science any more.

    Seems no-brainer to me.

  6. February 23, 2011 at 19:37

    WRT Andrew Duffin’s comment …

    Well, I can understand why accountants might be the people who see money as the primary thing in life. If they don’t, then they are destined for at least partial disappointment.

    Actually, several of my classmates, reading physics at Imperial, went on to be accountants. That’s all fine by me. [Additionally, my accountants (the partner and the one who ‘does most of it’) are most excellent people: they understand what I need from them, and provide it.]

    Concerning lawyers, I suppose it’s easier when you are not up against an immovable: the ‘laws’ of natural philosophy. [Likewise to my accountants: my solicitor. He has, on several occasions, found the practical (and legal) solution that defeats administrative difficulties and minimises my costs and time.]

    Other ‘physicists’ (my wife included) went into general management and did very nicely (by comparison to the average long-term physicist) in the money stakes. IMHO, her primary business skill is who to believe, and I like to think that the background in numeracy and science helps with that. [And, of course, we met through our (somewhat different) beliefs in the utility of a physics degree.]

    For myself, pushing back the boundaries of knowledge (or, at least, asking the better questions of the time) is a good substitute to more money (and I have enough – though more would not be turned down). There is also still time for me to become a millionaire through application of some scientific breakthrough.

    Still, IMHO, making vast sums of money is pretty much a matter of luck, no matter what the field. Though my wife has been heard to say (and as I have oft repeated): “Luck is the coincidence of preparation with opportunity.”

    So, if a bit more money is your main definition of good luck, take Andrew’s advice and go into accountancy or law.

    But beware: for current and upcoming students, the relative importance of vocational skills does change with time: science and maths may well leapfrog accountancy and law, sometime over the next 30+ years. I think it rather depends on whether the public sector (and hence rule and regulation) retains its dominance over the private sector: and I don’t really see that dominance going on for that length of time.

    Best regards

  7. February 23, 2011 at 20:23

    Nigel is going to be a bit surprised at a certain post in the next few days.

  8. February 24, 2011 at 06:51

    When I was 11 I was fascinated by physics and chemistry. When we got our physics text book that we were supposed to cover it in 5 years and I read it in 5 weeks, skipping the bits with calculations, which I didn’t understand. In class we started with the most boring bit first, heat, whereas I was interested in light, magnetism and electricity. Our geography teacher doubled at chemistry teacher, I think he had done Chem I at university and dropped it, but he could teach. Then when got a guy who knew a lot about checmistry but couldn’t teach, and I lost interest. I might have become a hydrologist or something, but opted for the humanities.

    And I think it is the humanities that put science into perspective. But it is always the humanities that are the first go to in a recession. Like libraries.

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