Benjamin Winterhalter has a piece in The Atlantic about the different assumptions, many of them stereotypical, we make about what drives people working in the STEM fields. The article focuses mainly on the common association of the STEM disciplines with real-world pragmatism and how this is often a mistake. Winterhalter argues that the dismissal of math for math’s sake is detrimental to natural developments within the fields.
Very often, I hear some version of the following meme repeated: STEM subjects are practical and earthbound and technically precise, while the humanities are emotive and wistful. It’s become something of a cliché. But I think this popular perception is out of sync with what is actually going on in these graduate programs. In discussing the humanities, people take for granted that the objects of inquiry are, to varying degrees, disconnected from reality. They assume that the goal of studying, say, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is to uplift the spirit, discover something about beauty, and enrich one’s appreciation of art. With STEM subjects, it’s the complete opposite. We assume that people study microbiology to develop vaccines that will save lives, or computer science to design the next #BigData innovation, or mathematics to hone their minds for a lucrative career managing a hedge fund.
These assumptions are partly about the temperaments of the students—about the kinds of people who choose to study, say, chemistry over art history—and, in that respect, they’re kind of true. But I don’t find this particularly satisfying. The logic is basically circular: It makes just as much sense to say that someone is a pragmatist because he became a chemist as it does to say that he became a chemist because he’s a pragmatist.
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