The Liberal Arts: Not Just STEM’s Rumspringa

image via Vice.com

image via Vice.com

“Liberal artists” and STEM folks, the “two cultures” of our day, have been paying more attention to each other lately. Undergraduate English majors are learning to code and medical professionals are forming novel-reading groups. In the past few weeks, there’s been a flurry of reporting on the intersections between the L.A. and STEM. What are the two cultures saying about each other now? And, germane to this particular public square, what cultural attitudes do they belie about what writers, artists, and others slogging in the humanities actually do?

In the Wall Street Journal, a recent “At Work” column about liberal arts majors gravitating toward training programs like the App Academy begins with the line, “If a 10-year old can become an ace web programmer, why can’t a liberal arts graduate?” Ouch.

Right, I forgot—people who study the liberal arts have no skills, so have the same chance at success in a coding program as a child who hasn’t yet graduated high school. But despite a thorny start, the column focuses on the pragmatic attitudes of young college students, familiar to anyone who has taught freshmen since 2008. Faced with a threatening job market and the squeezing of federal support for the arts and humanities, young graduates find themselves turning to the most obviously lucrative skill of their generation. Ironically, coding gives some the freedom and opportunity to think critically/ creatively that they thought they’d find in the publishing or art worlds. Not to mention, the pay is better.

But the column skims over what a liberal arts graduate actually has to offer the tech world. “We already have a lot of software whiz kids. We like to hire people who are interested in public affairs or civic engagement,” says Dan Melton, a deputy chief technology officer at a tech company. I’m not sure whether statements like this should make liberal arts folks feel needed or condescended to by tech. If another 2008 were to come along, who would be the first to go—the “publicly engaged” App Academy graduate, or the whiz kid (the 10-year-old)?

And then there’s the closing quote, from a theater-and-music major who finds that her new job as a developer allows her “that creative opportunity that I didn’t find in music.” Before learning to code, she was an executive assistant at a music production company. This isn’t quite fair. Blurring the line between actual creative work and the industry that surrounds that work allows the article to make it sound like all artists need is to “channel” their creativity into a new interpretation of the word, preferably one coined by Silicon Valley and Richard Florida.

But some big players don’t see the liberal arts as just a big rumspringa before the real world of STEM. Stanford University, which has hitherto been less of a melting pot for the two cultures and more of a Silicon Valley startup lab with a world-class English department sleeping in the doghouse, has announced a program that accords more respect to what both computer scientists and humanities scholars are capable of. A pair of new joint-degree programs—in CS and English and CS and music—will require students to take core courses in both departments and then complete a capstone project that integrates them.

The current media interpretation of a “third culture”—the person with brain lobes in both science and the humanities– seems to be a kind of tamed wild child: the writer or artist who has seen the foolishness of her dream and settled down to be ‘creative’ some other way. The innovative work being done in the digital humanities, digital storytelling, and other technology-driven art isn’t ignored, exactly—and programs like Stanford’s may bring it more to the forefront—but the riskiness and newness of these endeavors is downplayed. Parents of creative writing majors tend to press ‘send’ on the articles that show a smiling, tattooed former-theater-geek happily developing an app.

The development of programs like Stanford’s shows that humanities professionals are doing their own work to prove the relevance of their departments and their students to the 21st century, and to prove that deep reading and critical thinking aren’t “soft skills.” Of the recent stories that highlight potential fruitful intersections between literary work and the sciences, Heidi Julavits’s essay in this month’s Harper’s stands out. In a piece on the benefits and pitfalls of self-diagnosis via the Internet, contemporary physicians’ selective listening, and patients’ preference for palliative care over cure, she spotlights Columbia Medical School’s Narrative Medicine program.

The program, which provides “the framework for improving patient care through graduate training in narrative practice” isn’t just an experiment to see what happens when doctors read novels. Run by Rita Charon, a woman with a Ph.D. in English as well as an M.D., the program actually takes the skills required for deep literary analysis (“attentive listening, adopting others’ perspectives…reflective reasoning”) and applies them to medicine. The idea is that if doctors can better understand and process their patients’ illness narratives, they are in a better position to help. Trusting patients’ language, as Elaine Scarry writes in The Body in Pain, is the first step toward accurate diagnosis and relief.

This won’t sound new to writers. What strikes me about Columbia’s approach to combining training in narrative skills with the technical skills needed to become a physician is that the program doesn’t unfairly stretch the definition of what a storyteller does. “Creativity” to the tech world may mean a novelist’s creative problem-solving stripped of its facility with language and empathy, but “narrative” to narrative medicine means just that: a focus on specific language and story, on putting yourself completely in someone else’s shoes.

Can the future of tech and the humanities get to this level of integration? In tech, is there room to value liberal arts graduates not just for their ‘public engagement’ but for their skills in understanding the potential impact of certain human-computer interactions, their knowledge of how language works, and of how a story unfolds? We’ll see. Storytellers stay tuned.

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