Why Study Humanities? What I Tell Engineering Freshmen

Wisdom from science writer John Horgan.

20130620-183800.jpg[I]t is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.

The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day.

But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The societies we live in also keep changing–in part because of science and technology! So in certain important ways, humans resist the kind of explanations that science gives us. —Scientific American Blog Network.

Along similar lines, I like to tell students that in some subjects and some courses, the assumption is that a good class moves everyone in the room from disagreement to agreement, as the professor carefully presents the evidence necessary to disprove various incorrect approaches. But my job is to send students away from a discussion with more questions they had than when they arrived.

3 thoughts on “Why Study Humanities? What I Tell Engineering Freshmen

  1. I always talk of the “myth of the well-rounded engineer” to my students. The ideas in the humanities courses are essential to being _human_. Art, literature, music, poetry – these are the keys to asking the questions of “Why?” which science is so bad at answering.

    There’s a short anecdote my father told me when he worked for in R&D for a pacemaker company in Florida. The first project the company ever did was named the “Moses” project in-house. When this one went to production, and R&D was moving to the second project, the question of what to call it came up. My father suggested that the project that followed “Moses” should be “Joshua”. NONE of the engineers in the room got the reference. It made me sad.

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