Breaking The Humanities vs. Sciences Divide

This article is a call to take down the old wall between humanities and STEM fields that is limiting the potential of individuals and the world.

“There’s never a definite answer. I hate it,” Jenny Chung (‘19) speaks about humanities, or mungwa, as it is commonly called in Korea.

“But that’s exactly why I love it!” Hope Yoon (‘19) replies. “Most of the time in STEM courses, there’s only one answer and no room for creativity.”

Most people, especially those of us used to the “mungwa vs. igwa” (igwa being STEM) doctrine of the Korean education system, would look at these two girls- only sophomores in high school- and draw a line between them. One belongs in the sciences, and the other in the humanities.

I would beg to differ.

It goes without saying that this binary is deeply rooted in our society’s thought system. Perhaps this is even more severe in the country we live in, given that Korean high schools in the status quo explicitly divide students into the two categories and teach them different courses. People rarely question that the minds of students are, indeed, divided as such. Following the trend of putting students through earlier and tougher education, children are being asked “which one do you belong in?” at increasingly young ages.

Of course, this mindset is also present in western society, and it follows that KIS silently revolves around this dichotomy as well. A sophomore considered to be “of the humanities” is met with questioning looks when he selects to take AP Biology. A junior’s affinity towards AP Chemistry is best understood by others when she explains that she is “of the sciences”. A freshman considering his extracurricular choices is told that art clubs are useless if he’s “planning to go into STEM”. From course selections to college counseling, students are constantly divided and separated- some kind of academic Berlin Wall.

The Korean government has recently decided to eliminate the official divide between high school students that was aforementioned- a decision that has been met with mixed responses. Many students complain online on how there is even more to worry about, now that the spectrum of education has been combined. It must be noted that Korean students have steadily been shifting towards igwa for years; in the last twelve years, igwa students have increased by about 36,000 students, while mungwa students have decreased by about 17,000 students[1]. This trend is undoubtedly linked to the current job crisis, and how students are told that it is easier to find jobs related to the sciences. Mungwa students are often belittled as “softer” or “dumber” than their igwa counterparts. If the binary first existed simply to assist career selections, it is now clearly much more than that, permeating everything from philosophy to pop culture.

So where does this all come from? A common response to this question raises the theory of certain people having more developed left or right brains. We’ve all taken one online personality quiz or another, telling us that logical analysts are more left-brained and that creative artists are right-brained. In fact, this is a myth that still plagues us. The line between our talents is not so scientifically drawn; not quite as grounded or innate as many think. Neuroscientific research has shown that people show no clear distinction between being more connected or neuron-rich in their left or right brain, or that either side is “used more” in certain people [2].

The humanities vs. sciences divide is an outdated concept. It is a simple trend of people being attracted toward a group of fields, and nothing more- certainly nothing that should be powerful enough to generalize entire populations of students and let them limit themselves to a mere half of what the academic world has to offer them. High school students know only the tip of the iceberg of the diversity and richness of careers in society, and it is foolish to choose sides when not enough career options are explored and when personalities and interests are still so malleable.  Of course, this is not to say that students should never specialize- but that is a matter of numerous fields that are not strictly divided into two categories.

It is also an outdated concept that people on one side of the dichotomy do not need the other. Alexander Nazaryan from The New Yorker breaks this idea through an example of how writers need math, stating that “mathematical precision and imagination can be a salve to a literature that is drowning in vagueness of language and theme” [3]. Mathematician Terence Tao stated that once mathematical study goes beyond the theoretical stage, one enters a much more intriguing field, where good intuition is needed to deal with the big picture. We all need to break out of our boxes. As Julio M. Ottino wrote in a Northwestern academic magazine, technological knowledge is essential for everyone in the current world, since otherwise, one would not be able to understand the impact of new technological systems and make rational decisions about them [4]. On the other hand, arts and humanities are vital because “without a grounding in these fields, an entire range of human experiences and emotions will forever be invisible to us”.

Most importantly, it must be understood that the two sides of the coin are not mutually exclusive. Each field can benefit from the other, and problem solving is infinitely enriched by utilizing all perspectives. Everyone needs both linguistic skills and analytical skills, both fundamental scientific knowledge and artistic or philosophical understanding. What’s more, in a future job market that increasingly synthesizes diverse subjects, colleges are looking for flexible students with multiple interests as well. Only investing in one well is a strategy of the past.

The reason behind why we are so drawn to dividing ourselves into two types is perhaps best explained in an article by Amy Novotney in The Guardian: “there’s something seductively simple about labeling yourself and others… [it] provides us with an explanation for why we are the way we are, and offers insights into where we fit into the world.” [5] But we are so much more than simple labels. Besides, it is such a big waste of talent to close off one half of the spectrum to young students. Let’s face it: our brains are not set in stone. We underestimate ourselves by limiting our potential- literally cutting it in half, actually. Once given enough time and encouragement to properly explore, who knows what interests students could find in the shifting labyrinths of their minds?

–Jisoo Hope Yoon (’19)

[1] Haneul Education Korean Economy Newspaper
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