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To Major in STEM or Not to Major in STEM: That Is (Now) The Question

Oscar Fernandez, one of "our" Associate Professors, gave an intriguing talk comparing the financial advantages of liberal arts versus STEM majors. He spoke to our class on Zoom on Tuesday, September 19. Professor Fernandez is Associate Professor of Mathematics and the recipient of a three-year grant from the class of 1966 for project research. Those who recall hearing Professor Fernandez speak at our 2021 55th reunion can attest to how fascinating and full of charm he is. This talk to the class displayed even more of that fascination and charm.

See the abstract of his talk below below, and click here to view a recording.

In addition, he provided us with links to the documents he showed in his talk:

ABSTRACT: Professor Oscar Fernandez, Associate Professor of Mathematics
To Major in STEM or Not to Major in STEM: That Is (Now) The Question.
The liberal arts tradition in Western education has its roots in ancient Greek pursuits of truth and universal laws -- particularly, though not exclusively, through rational inquiry -- as exemplified by the lives and work of scholars like Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Such pursuits came to be classified by the Greeks -- most notably, Plato in The Republic -- into the quadrivium (astronomy, mathematics, geometry, and music) and the trivium (rhetoric, grammar, and logic). The ancient Greeks argued, both for practical and theoretical reasons, that every citizen needed training in these subjects. Practically speaking, Greek citizens needed such training in order to be knowledgeable and active participants in civic life. More abstractly, some Greeks -- like Plato -- argued that training in the liberal arts prepared one for a life of philosophy (literally "love of wisdom") that would help them transcend their reality and come to know true truth, beauty, and the good. (Plato used his now famous Allegory of the Cave to describe what this transcendence might look and feel like.) Accordingly, the Latin name for "liberal arts" is artes liberales, which translates literally to "the arts of freedom."
 
For thousands of years, this tradition of liberal education was foundational to Western education. And up until about the early 1600s, liberal education was intertwined with "STEM" fields in ways that synergized non-STEM fields (e.g., art) with STEM fields (e.g., mathematics). The Renaissance (circa 14th century to circa 17th century) is a wonderful example. Polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci masterfully weaved together art, science, mathematics, to produce, for example, both works of art and innovations in engineering. But in the early 1600s this fruitful interplay between STEM and non-STEM pursuits began to crumble. A notable milestone was the trial of Galileo Galilei and his work by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1633. Galileo was prosecuted for advocating heliocentrism -- the view that the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun -- despite furnishing empirical evidence of this through the astronomical observations he made via his telescope. Galileo's work in astronomy and physics, and his combination of experiments with mathematics -- which updated and modernized what we have come to call the scientific method -- launched a revolution in science that sought to explain the universe without recourse to a creator. This eventually led to the Enlightenment (circa 17th and 18th centuries), during which titans like Descartes, Newton, Euler, Kant, Adam Smith, and others sought to explain the universe and the world via laws that could be deduced rationally from universal principles (echoing the ancient Greeks). Collectively dubbed "the clockwork universe," this machine-like portrayal of the universe further distanced STEM fields from non-STEM fields. Combined with the success of the various innovations in technology, government, etc. produced by these thinkers' theories, demand for STEM-trained individuals skyrocketed. The Industrial Revolution (circa 1760 to 1840) further bolstered this demand, as have many of the subsequent revolutions and major global incidents since then (the quantum physics revolution and the invention of airplanes in the early 1900s, the technological needs of the war efforts in WWI and WWII, the founding of NASA and humanity's exploration of space, the computer revolution of the 1950s and onward, the age of the internet, and today's AI revolution).
 
It may seem, therefore, that we have abandoned the ancient Greeks' dream of a well-rounded individual that is both capable of being an informed and active citizen and of pursuing higher truth via philosophical reflection and inquiry. Yet the liberal arts tradition survives. It lives on at Wellesley and at hundreds of other institutions. Furthermore, as we will discuss, survey after survey of employers indicate that what they want most in employees are not STEM-specific skills (e.g., coding), but instead critical thinking skills, the ability to maintain and build collaborative relationships, effective communication skills, and a host of other skills and competencies that are central to the seven liberal arts. Moreover, data indicates that liberal arts degrees offer higher lifetime earnings than other degree types (e.g., professional or technical degrees) and lead to greater flexibility in changing careers later in life. The job market for liberal arts degrees is, in other words, healthy and robust, despite appearances. What is needed, therefore, is better communication to students about the value of a liberal arts degree and the opportunities it affords. (An immersion in its rich history would also be valuable, I would argue.) What is also needed -- more foundationally, in my opinion -- is a return to the harmonious interaction between STEM and non-STEM fields that characterized the pre-1600s. Mathematics has historically facilitated that exchange, and holds the potential to act as a central hub for this future harmony. During our conversation we will discuss a few ways in which that is happening at the boundaries of current research into foundational questions (e.g., the nature of consciousness), and also, in particular, at Wellesley (via, for example, our new statistics minor and data science major).