Crossing the subject divide

Crossing the subject divide

Observe this conversation between two parents: 

Parent 1 -  "So what subjects your child has taken?"

Parent 2 – "He has taken literature, history, geography and phycology. But you do know that he is brilliant in sciences but it is his personal choice to make a career in social sciences."

The addendum by Parent 2 clearly reveals that there indeed is an invisible ladder existing in our minds with subjects arranged on its steps meticulously with definitive hierarchy. And so it is obvious that there is no 'Kota city for liberal arts', neither I have heard any grapevine conversation where a parent is happily telling that he or she has paid upward of 1 crore to secure a seat in humanities in a private college.   

If an average science student is better than a brilliant humanities student then, how about banning some subjects altogether? This idea is not coming out of my figment of irony but is very much a product of reality. Over the past few decades, policymakers of countries around the world have been pushing the younger children towards the STEM camp. In not so distant past, ex-UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan urged teenagers to steer clear of arts and humanities and focus only on STEM subjects: "…the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects." Her views match perfectly with those of Matt Bevin, the current governor of Kentucky, US who says, "If you’re studying interpretive dance, God bless you, but there’s not a lot of jobs right now in America looking for people with that as a skill set."

Fluidity is vital

The above suggestions may look outlandish but the slicing of subjects into STEM and non-STEM has now reached a dangerous point where the majority of the population is somehow convinced that arts and humanities are truly meaningless when it comes to job security and prospects of earning. In fact, during my interactions with STEM students or their parents, I find a great reluctance towards reading anything from the non-STEM side. I find them greatly convinced that literature, history, geography, philosophy, etc. may be a good time pass but are not going to help them craft a great career. This is an absolute flawed understanding and has caused enough damage to not only to our society at large but to several individuals who were forced into STEM camp in spite of their intrinsic passion for arts and humanities. 

I want to emphasise that importance of the existence of arts and humanities for our society’s progress is exactly similar to the importance of the existence of bees for our existence. They both appear somewhat insignificant on the apparent plane, but in the grander scheme of things, they both are supremely consequential. 

With over several years of research, I have come to this conclusion that most of the great minds of human civilisation are actually the ones who broke the boundaries of subjects and incorporated insights from diverse fields. And this also holds true of great scientists, engineers or entrepreneurs from science and technology. It is quite possible that an entry-level or mid-level professional in STEM industry who has no understanding of history, culture, geography, philosophy or arts or who do not read literature may achieve initial success but he or she will soon realise that in order to keep rising towards the leadership roles, the crossing of subject barriers will be a mandatory requirement. In fact, such fluidity is vital for arriving at groundbreaking ideas or world-class products across the spectrum.  

The fluid thinking becomes even more important as we enter the era of artificial intelligence. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk got into a public debate. While Musk termed progress in artificial intelligence as ‘the greatest risk we face as a civilisation’, Zuckerberg considered such views as scaremongering and ‘pretty irresponsible’. So who out of Musk and Zuckerberg will win the battle of forecasting? Although Zuckerberg and Musk differ in their perspectives, it is interesting to note that they both stand under the same umbrella of STEM. However, the winner will be the one who would realise that any fortune-telling on AI cannot be perfected only by confining ourselves to the womb of a technology bubble, but by breaking subject boundaries to gather from sociocultural and political-economic perspectives.

Hence, it is crucial that we all must tell our younger generation that the future belongs to the ones who do not see the world only through the eyes of STEM but to the ones who are willing to cross the divide and absorb from as many diverse fields as possible. 


(The author is an associate fellow, Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, UK)

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