Why STEM and arts subjects must go hand in hand

18 mar 2018 |

The humanities are equally important as STEM subjects, and should be overlooked at the peril of humanity. That was the message from speakers at the Global Education & Skills Forum 2018 in a session which included the artistic director of the English National Ballet, the CEO of Dubai Airports, a philosopher and a finalist in last year’s Global Teachers’ Prize.

It is “foolish and short-sighted” to actively steer people away from studying the humanities, said the author and Professor of American Literature Sarah Churchwell. “We have set up a false binary.”

“Bringing arts and science together is where we create all knowledge, and create secure and prosperous economies,” she said, arguing that the more advanced you get in your thinking – whether that is in STEM or arts subjects – the more you move towards the imaginary. “And that is where leadership and vision come from,” she said, citing the arts degrees of world leaders including former US President Barack Obama, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and France’s President Emmanuel Macron.

The artistic director of the English National Ballet Tamara Rojo also warned against overlooking the humanities, saying it was a “social tragedy” that less students are studying arts subjects in the UK and that schools are being forcing schools to cut the number of subjects they can offer.

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Building empathy

Ms Rojo said that part of the value of the arts is that there is no clear answer, forcing students to analyse what is in front of them. This, she said, created empathetic people who are able to cope with uncertainty. “Who will want to send their students out into the world without the skills to deal with uncertainty?”, she asked.  

Her passion for the value of the arts was reflected by the Venezuelan teacher Ron Davis Alvarez who argued that music is a requirement of having a good life. “It’s how we build our soul and spirit,” he said.

Mr Alvarez grew up in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods of Caracas in Venezuela, and only decided he wanted to become a teacher after discovering his passion for music.

“Education is a path of multiple destinies,” he said. “When that journey includes music, you give kids many possibilities.”

Even airports need humans

These speakers received support from a less predictable quarter – the world of business.

The CEO of Dubai Airports Paul Griffiths talked about the need to put human intervention back into the business proposition – something that will be enabled through the studying of the humanities rather than STEM subjects.

“I’m desperate to use technology to eliminate the poor processes at airports, he said, mentioning the unpopular queues for baggage drop-off and passport control at airports.

“Young people today may well have a good career in finding the right technology to ensure good processes”, he said. “But once all the processes have gone into the background, people don’t want to be served by machines.”

He talked instead of the need to bring humanity – with a whole range of  passions – back into front line services. This, he says, will be the key differentiating factor in the service industry of the future.

With a clear consensus amongst the speakers to encourage more students to pursue the arts, Ms Rojo called for countries to create a federation for the creative industries, in order to protect the humanities and promote their importance.

“The buck should stop with what makes human life worth living,” added the philosopher Julian Baggini. “Economic growth and technology is just the instrument, the aim and the goal is a civilised society.”

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