Word Stems or STEM Backgrounds
By Santiago Eastman
Photo Credit: UnSplash
“What is more valuable, knowledge or action? Which is the greater achievement, wisdom or material success? Are action and contemplation necessarily at odds, or can we hope to achieve a balance between them?” (Action vs Contemplation, 3)
Entering the last year of my English major, I’ve had a lot of time to think about how different my experiences were from the first time I went to university. The biggest differences weren’t just in location—the first time was in the United States—but also in terms of material. My background, from the moment I entered high school to the time I came to Canada, was in engineering. Every part of my day was spent studying, working on, or thinking about math, science, and programming.
The transition was difficult at first, I’m not going to lie. My training as a mechanical engineer specifically means I have a very pragmatic way of looking at the world (and don’t even get me started on what my parents thought of the change). What good did medieval literature have on my ability to survive in a world that only cared about numbers? How could memorizing modern poetry help me land a job that kept a roof over my head? Slowly though, I started to realize that there was more to learning than just a steady income, more to life than thermodynamics. And reading Action vs Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters helped a lot in that transition.
I’ve noticed that there’s an interesting dichotomy that inevitably emerges when talking about careers in STEM versus the humanities—from both sides. In their book, Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule set out to understand that dichotomy. They break it down and analyze why there’s so much animosity between the two. The rational, practical side of STEM majors tends to see the humanities as frivolous, a waste of time, an unnecessary surface-level coating that doesn’t have a real-world value. For many students, especially those who are first-generation or coming from a completely different part of the world, they don’t feel like they have the luxury to sit back and smell the fresh ink. They need assurances that they can support themselves (and a family), even if it means putting themselves through incredibly rigorous and competitive programs that often lead to burnout—or worse.
On the flip side, the humanities often look at business boys and architects as rough, self-interested barbarians who are tactless and lack empathy. (Put the pitchforks down, I’m kidding—or am I?) For many in the humanities, students decide to forge ahead with their leaps of faith, either all right with knowing they might end up only working vocationally or having nest eggs set up by loving family members. But who is correct? At the end of the day, what’s more important? In many ways, this book challenges these very questions.
In the US especially, more and more often, there's an emphasis on careers in STEM. Maths and sciences are easier for schools to teach children, as they can create quizzes and tests that have one main way of getting one right answer. In a rapidly changing world, maths and sciences are vital to learn proper problem-solving and analytical thinking skills. (Not to mention, the ever-increasing reliance on technology demands a certain level of competence and know-how for entrepreneurs and consumers alike.) In many ways, I felt this demand. In my previous university, it often felt like I was on an assembly line. In the beginning, I was given a flow chart (a “career path”, they called it) of classes that I needed to take, in the order I needed to take them. There was a little wiggle room in that I could choose to take Intro to Programming instead of Aerodynamics 101 if I wanted, but otherwise, the plan was set. My time at Concordia, meanwhile, has been vastly different.
For starters, instead of a flow chart, English majors just have a set of requirements that they need to hit. Within those, they're free to take whatever they like. My requirements as a double major went something like this: three intro courses, at least two 300-level courses, and at least one 400-level one. Everything else was fair play. I had so much space for electives that planning for my semesters then swung to the opposite direction for me. I developed choice paralysis and didn't know what to fill my roster with. The carefully constructed paths to success were gone, and with them, the freedom to go on autopilot. Now, I had to properly think about what I wanted from my degree.
Action vs Contemplation was the first time I saw people take a fresh approach to this dichotomy. Instead of picking a “better” side, the authors take a different route: they say both are important—and even necessary. Engineers can’t live without the humanities. It’s simply not possible. Even the most stringent career paths require future bridge-designers and skyscraper-builders to take classes on ethics, to make sure we act with humans in mind first. They have to take English classes to write better reports and are (usually) required to look for electives outside the department, which often translates into the arts or music. In theory classes, they need to learn about the history of designs and certain schools of thought. (And I had at least one class where I had to work in a group to build a robot, which was fun until I realized I had done most of the work. In theory, I was supposed to learn teamworking skills, but in reality, it was a lot of me fussing around with PowerPoint.)
The humanities are no better off without STEM. From the very beginning of print culture, we needed engineering to make the printing press, to make ink, to make the very paper we write on. Programmers were responsible for the typewriter, for computers, for the phones synced to the Cloud™ that lets writers access information from anywhere. Physicists and chemists helped create the centers of learning we call universities. And, as we progress into the future, the line between art and technology only continues to blur. With it, so should our preconceptions of a divided front.
“Instead of opposing liberal education to professional education,” Summit and Vermeule write, “we might reconsider how practical studies could be deepened and enriched through integration with the… ways of thinking represented by the humanities,” (Action vs Contemplation, 96). A new way of thinking about knowledge, interdisciplinarity, could be just what students need to not only be successful, but find satisfaction in their lives. Personally, I’ve found my background as a huge boon to my work, not only because it means I have a unique perspective I can give my writing, but also because it’s given me skills in the professional world that help me stand out from the crowd. I spend less time in the weeds and more time doing what I love, which is to create.
It's not a question of whether to live life through action or contemplation. A life lived jumping from one thing to the next is a recipe for burnout, just as a life lived doing nothing but thinking leads to dissatisfaction. Instead, we need both—theory and practice, forethought and effort, adventure and creativity. I personally would love to see a world where Research & Development teams work in tandem with musicians and poets, in wonderful harmony, not stringent opposition.
Summit, Jennifer, and Blakey Vermeule. Action versus Contemplation: Why An Ancient Debate Still Matters. The University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Summit, Jennifer, and Blakey Vermeule. “The ‘Two Cultures’ Fallacy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle, 1 July 2018, www.chronicle.com/article/The-Two-Cultures-Fallacy/.