You see, I cannot remember a time where I was not taking a math class. It has become almost a reflex to assume which topic I will delve into next year, whether it be more calculus (probably not) or different branch of mathematics. When people criticize me for not “prioritizing” or “managing my time” as an English major, they perpetuate an insidious dichotomy, especially as liberal arts scholars.
Forget the cliché “real world” applicability questions bored students ask in Algebra to stall before an exam. The way math has helped me visualize and conceptualize abstract questions as a literature-reading, essay-writing, and poetry-creating human being is invaluable. I can understand poems as sine curves and sine curves as poems, and critical analysis essays as second derivatives. Is there a space in which the shortest distance between two points is not a line? In a non-Euclidean universe there is.
My classmates who dichotomize STEM and the Humanities feed into a national trend that devalues “broad-based learning” and the raison-d’être of the school they attend (a liberal arts college). They overlook Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma’s connection of China’s innovation deficit to its educational system, which focuses primarily on “memorization and test-taking.” America, on the other hand, who ranked almost last among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, has been historically more apt to overcome hardship by emphasizing skills such as “creativity, critical thinking and optimistic outlook” over a “skilled workforce” and productivity. While the latter two skills are essential factors in strengthening a nation, innovation will eventually plateau if not for experimentation and imagination. In other words, when President Obama denigrates the worth of an Art History degree, he hurts surgeons and EMTs who could benefit from the acute observational and inferential skills acquired from studying art. Similarly, when we teach math without integrating art into the lessons, we preserve the idea that students must adhere to either one topic or another, and we foreshadow the day those of them who are engineering majors will sit down at their computers and realize they cannot write a cover letter.
Although there is a profound lack of diversity in STEM fields, according to Zakaria’s article the problems caused by discrimination in such disciplines resemble those of individuals deprived of a liberal education. Indeed, the need for the commingling of science and Humanities does not invalidate the need for diversity in STEM fields – it exists alongside it. Ultimately, to eradicate the prejudices rampant in math and science, we must destroy the barrier between minds of different backgrounds as well as the barrier between STEM and the Humanities. Only then will we be able to make true progress.
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