A Case for the Marriage of Technical Fields with the Humanities

As an English major I have had the opportunity to study literature in connection with many other disciplines including history, religion, math, psychology, philosophy, science, film, trauma studies, and adaptation studies, to name a few. Studying these fields in conjunction with literature is one of my favorite parts about being an English major. I learn about a variety of fields while also studying some excellent texts. Recently, environmental humanities and discussions about the Anthropocene have become hot topics of study. Many English PhD programs have also started to place importance on interdisciplinary studies, encouraging students to branch out of their primary disciplines to help them provide more nuance to their studies and to make them better thinkers, scholars, and contributors.

Since scholars in the humanities have been stressing the importance of interdisciplinary studies, I have wondered how other fields have approached the humanities. I currently teach a technical writing class, and many of my students only marginally see the importance of writing in their field, despite the fact that writing skills are vitally important in technical fields. Many certainly do not seem to believe that an intense study of the humanities is necessary for them. However, the humanities has a lot to offer students in technical fields because both types of fields share the same basic idea that we should work toward improving humanity. They just do it in different ways. Imagine how nuanced scientific and technical studies would be if people developed a better understanding of the very humans that they will be working with or that they will be developing things for.

Adam Frank, professor at the University of Rochester and theoretical/computational astrophysicist, argues in favor of studying the humanities, writing, “In spite of being a scientist, I strongly believe an education that fails to place a heavy emphasis on the humanities is a missed opportunity. Without a base in humanities, both the students — and the democratic society these students must enter as informed citizens — are denied a full view of the heritage and critical habits of mind that make civilization worth the effort.” But in addition to this defense of the humanities, he also advocates for interdisciplinary studies: “It is no longer enough for students to focus on either science/engineering or the humanities/arts. During the course of their lives, students today can expect to move through multiple career phases requiring a wide range of skills.” He argues that students should also learn how to do computer programming; the focus on the digital humanities echoes this suggestion.

Well-rounded students should focus on developing all different kinds of skills in order to be better critical thinkers and to make themselves more marketable. In fact, some colleges are even mixing computer science with other majors, such as the CS+X major at Stanford University that blends music with computer science, as Corinne Ruff explains. And while Ruff writes that some students do not mesh with the CS+X program and notes some of the program’s limitations, she suggests that degrees mixing computer science and the humanities/arts are the way of the future.

In addition to the practical benefits of interdisciplinary studies, Edward Guiliano, president of New York Institute of Technology, wrote an article for The Washington Post defending the importance of the humanities in science-related fields because they teach important interpersonal skills. He writes, “Indeed, the world’s biggest challenges—whether economic, environmental, technological or physical—demand critical thinking, empathy, cultural literacy and creativity. These skills are cultivated through an education that embraces the humanities.” Serious study of the humanities certainly requires critical thinking from its students. It invites students to challenge their assumptions, to attempt to understand someone else’s perspective, to delve into other cultures, and to develop empathy. Guiliano’s statement makes a logical case for students studying technical fields to also study the humanities. And he’s seen very tangible results, citing examples of patients having more improved health when working with empathetic physicians: “A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, for example, determined that lung cancer patients responded more positively to the directions of physicians who were empathetic. Another tracked 20,000 diabetic patients and found that those cared for by compassionate physicians had significantly fewer complications from diabetes.”

In a practical application, I have seen how groups have used cultural awareness, empathy, and a desire to understand humans to improve education and to improve quality of life. One example is Steven Mintz’s suggestions for retaining STEM students as outlined in his article “Improving Rates of Success in STEM Fields.” His ideas include interdisciplinary pedagogy and content, but they also include analyzing the personal backgrounds of students including economic status, potential language barriers, and overall student health. This humanistic approach to studies in the STEM field will increase success for students.

The Green House Project is another example of a humanistic approach to science. The mission of The Green House Project is to help empower the elderly to maintain purpose in their lives and to continue to build meaningful relationships. Bill Thomas, founder of The Green House Project, believes that people need to change their mindsets about growing old, suggesting that growing old is a privilege, and it is a unique time that can be rich with meaningful experience. In seeking to change the negative mindset about aging, he wishes to revolutionize how we take care of the elderly. In 1991, Thomas tried an experiment, bringing in a lot of animals and plants to an elderly care facility for the patients to take care of. Tara Bahrampour reports of the experience, “All those animals in a nursing home broke state law, but for Thomas and his staff, it was a revelation. Caring for the plants and animals restored residents’ spirits and autonomy; many started dressing themselves, leaving their rooms and eating again. The number of prescriptions fell to half of that of a control nursing home, particularly for drugs that treat agitation. Medication costs plummeted, and so did the death rate.” This experiment brought a significant shift in patient health, simply because Thomas understood that humans need a reason to live, to have something to give them purpose in their lives, and caring for something gave them that purpose. Thomas’s background includes being an “author, entrepreneur, musician, teacher, farmer, and physician.” His background is extensive, and it includes study of the arts. Perhaps his background in the arts wasn’t the driving force to incite change, but his interest in humans seems to be his catalyst for effecting change. And the humanities encourages students and scholars to utilize their backgrounds to better understand what it means to be human, which will in turn prepare them to offer important skills needed to bring about important change. Imagine what the world would be like if every person put the goal of improving humanity at the forefront of their disciplinary studies.

By Brittany Bruner, Humanities Center Intern

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  1. Janis Nuckolls says:

    Fantastic essay!!! Thanks!!

  2. John Rosenberg says:

    Thank you, Brittany. The voices of science and technology on the humanities are crucial to us, but ones we have not sufficiently cultivated. Thank you for attending to this side of the conversation.

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