Our society was built by what appears to be a dying breed: the polymath. Colloquially called “the Renaissance man,” these multi-talented people were the visionaries of the Enlightenment. Multilingual, well-versed in ancient Greek philosophy, talented artists and experts in mathematics and the sciences, the minds of the Renaissance era created our modern political and moral system and made discoveries which laid the path for the modern world.
The Enlightenment is closely tied to universities, but I do not view modern technological advancement as a product of academia. Most of our innovation since landing on the moon has come from private industry’s applications of the computer and the World Wide Web. Academia has been in the shadows for this movement. The hard sciences (the STEM fields) have simply gotten too hard. The “big” questions in physics, like the “Theory of Everything” are simply too large to expect much immediate progress. Even computer science is not as close to its great discoveries as is often believed. Artificial intelligence researchers mostly just write algorithms that learn how to play video games. The low hanging fruit in these fields appear to have been taken, but through interdisciplinary research STEM experts may be capable of making advancements in other fields.
You have almost certainly noticed STEM being considered superior to the social sciences and humanities. Telling a young person to learn to code is great advice; quality programmers are paid well and have great job security. Unfortunately, it seems this advice has been telephoned into “studying the liberal arts is useless, focus on science.” Scientific discoveries can be dangerous, and should not be handled only by hyper-specialists. For example, I am uncomfortable with biologists working on gene editing if they have not studied any philosophy. It’s not like we can push the moral dilemmas of gene editing to philosophers; they don’t understand gene editing. One only needs to look back to Cuban Missile Crisis to see proof of how close we have come to a world-ending level of irresponsibility with technology. The invention of the nuclear weapon should have prompted spirited debates sparkled with both morality and science. Instead, we defaulted to the ludicrous idea of giving the power to end the world in a nuclear holocaust to a single person – the president.
The social sciences have the opposite problem, the researchers aren’t good enough at math and statistics. Psychological studies are infamously bad at this. In his 2011 best seller “Thinking, Fast and Slow” psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize in economics, points this out, referencing an article which found “Psychologists commonly chose samples so small that they exposed themselves to a 50 percent risk of failing to confirm their true hypotheses.” Ironically Kahneman spends the rest of the book referencing studies whose size is too small to be relevant.
If we can move some mathematicians, physicians and other STEM researchers toward doing social science, social scientists would be forced to improve their statistical abilities in order to keep up. The STEM researchers would benefit from being aware of more concepts. They may never write that paper that gives them a Nobel Prize in physics and a tenure track at Stanford, but they may accidentally have an idea that turns into a revolutionary concept in a different field. However, that idea can only come to them if they have a broad education.
An engineering undergrad at UConn has to take six classes outside of STEM. Although this does amount to an engineer taking a gen ed almost every semester, the classes are too simplified to be valuable. Gen eds do not dip your feet into a field, they give you a squinting image of the field. Undergraduate education is usually rigorous for a student’s major, but it is not a rigorous broad education.
We could use more generalists in academia, but being a generalist is a must for a politician. The scientific illiteracy is obvious in American politics; philosophy as well. The only philosopher the Republicans invoke is Ayn Rand, and Democrats mostly potificiate the words of political figures like Martin Luther King Jr. The most we can apparently hope for is some knowledge of American history and law.
Perhaps it is too much to expect a large structural change in the American university system. It is already expensive and students would not want to take a bunch of classes for the haughty value of being broadly educated. I primarily would like a cultural change towards idealizing polymaths. The brightest minds are too valuable to get lost in a field they may not be optimal for.
Matthew Nota is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.