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The Stigma That Exists Between Liberal Arts and STEM

By Samuel Gomorra, Staff Reporter

The stigma or tension that exists between liberal arts and STEM has been discussed for years. STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, using an interdisciplinary and applied approach. It influences our culture, society and schools.

Dr. Bryan Yorton, associate professor of philosophy and department head, had this to say about the cultural presence and reason behind the stigma. “There has been a stigma in the past that says that we don’t have enough STEM and that we are wasting our time on the arts. The stigma has been from society and I think in general it is due to a misunderstanding of what all of them are about,” Dr. Yorton said.

Dr. Steven Rosscoe, associate professor of geology, sees the pointlessness of the judgment being made on the liberal arts and STEM. “I don’t necessarily think that there is a conflict and I don’t think that there is a value judgment that can be made. I think the stigma comes from a societal misinterpretation. There is no difference in the value of an English degree compared to a biology degree because you are being prepared for life no matter what,” Dr. Rosscoe said.

“We get so caught up in the monetization of success that it creates a false dichotomy. We are looking at pay as a justification of expertise and it shouldn’t be that way. We talk about our successes in terms of raises, promotions and purchases. Everything has become financially based. We have placed so much value on financial success that we have begun to tie it to everything that gets us there,” Dr. Rosscoe said.

Keegan Winchester, a junior and biochemistry and molecular biology major, thinks that the stigma can cause issues within the STEM and liberal arts communities. “I think that there is a cultural stigma where either group of people can develop a superiority complex. I think there is a stigma within the STEM community itself concerning the hard sciences compared to the soft sciences,” Whinchester said.

Caitlyn Smith, a junior and English major, sees that the weight of the stigma is where a person places value. “I think there is a stigma as people are often judgmental depending on what side you choose. I think the stigma is present at HSU, but for me it is not to the point that it is suffocating. I think it largely depends on how much weight you put behind people’s words,” Smith said.

It is seen that the liberal arts and STEM can complement one another, and that is the point of a liberal arts university. “In terms of majors, what we do in Holland [School of Sciences and Mathematics] is a liberal arts science education. Even though we are STEM, we are here because we believe in the liberal arts. We recognize that life is more than what you want to be at work,” Dr. Rosscoe said.

“I think that the liberal arts and STEM have to be allowed to complement each other, especially in a context like HSU,” Smith said.

“You can just focus on pure math, science, and technology and not really incorporate it with liberal arts. It then becomes a very mechanical thing that is not liberating and does not enhance your possibilities as a human. You cannot be a good engineer unless you are creative. For me, liberal arts provide the foundation for imagination, creativity and critical analysis. All of these are necessary to be good in the field of STEM,” Dr. Yorton said.

The fields are difficult in their own way, but often times people think certain majors are harder than others. “I do think that STEM majors are ‘harder’ in the sense that they can be more time-consuming in the sense of their class load and the amount of information that they have to memorize. I think both are difficult in their own way,” Smith said.

“I think that my science classes are harder in the sense of the amount of work and memorization needed for them, but it could be considered not as meaningful. In all the liberal arts classes I have taken, I really appreciate how much critical thinking and discussion goes on. I struggle just as much in calculus as I do reading a book on philosophy,” Winchester said.

“What also influences this stigma is how much work you think you have to put into the degree, and even then that is a very self-centered approach. We all think that we do more work than anyone else does. People do not take into consideration what it takes to be a good writer or to be a good historian. Instead, we just think that what other majors are doing is easy,” Dr. Rosscoe said.

The point of a liberal arts university like Hardin-Simmons University is not simply about getting into an occupation. “A foundational tradition of college is not to prepare you for a job but to make you into a better human being. The liberal arts require the ability that you are able to make something out of human imagination, words and create a character out of your life. They free you from being just an animal or a clog in the machine,” Dr. Yorton said.

“The really good scientists are the creative scientists. If you have not been exposed to the liberal arts, you tend to get locked into very basic ideas. Science itself is a philosophy. If you do not have a respect for that kind of philosophical relationship to science and everything else, I don’t think you can end up being a good scientist,” Dr. Rosscoe said.

“I think the best value of STEM in the non-STEM fields is understanding the approach of science. If you can know what science is and how it works, I think it helps you understand what is going on in the world. The foundation of a liberal arts education is that you need some of everything to be a well-rounded person,” Dr. Rosscoe continued.

“STEM and liberal arts can be separated, but when you allow them to combine and complement each other, I think that is when you get the best potential of yourself,” Smith said.

There are several ways that people can delve into the world of STEM or liberal arts.

“There are many great TED Talks [influential videos from expert speakers] online that can expose someone to many unique theories. It has reputable sources and people behind the research also,” Winchester said.

“Students should take classes that are out of the blue for them. It is amazing how much a person who is not good at science can enjoy a basic science class. They can enjoy learning about it and its methodology. It goes the other way too,” Dr. Yorton said.

“I read recreationally now, and it helps me to see a little more wonder in the world as I can see how other people view science and their perspective on other things,” Dr. Rosscoe said.

The education that is present at Hardin-Simmons University is about more than information. “The whole education that you are receiving is what college is for. It's about opening your mind and becoming an independent thinker to learn to live your own life,” Dr. Rosscoe said.


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