I was in the hospital over the weekend. Not to visit but as a patient. I won’t tire you with the details, but an encounter underscored some discussions with collegiate ministry staff this past week. The conversation was with an orderly, who with courtesy, grace, and care, wheeled me from the ER to a room on the eighth floor–at 5 am in the morning. I learned that while he works at nights to support his family, he is enrolled in a radiology program at our local community college — and loving it as a forty-something.
This man illustrates the promise in American higher education. A man doing good and worthy work devoting spare hours to acquire a base of knowledge and skill to pursue work that has come to interest him and will likely provide a better income for him and his family.
It seems to me that the defenders of the humanities over against science, technology, engineering, and math often do not seem to be speaking to people like my orderly. While defending their discipline’s nuanced and critical readings of literature, art, music, and history, and even with their accounts of race and class, they do not seem to recognize the opportunity STEM fields offer many to improve their economic status while preparing for good, worthy, and needed work that requires more than a high school diploma.
Do the purveyors of the humanities remember that originally their work was in service of the monied elites of the leisured classes–that these courses served as a “gentleman’s finishing school” for young heirs who would become lawyers or inherit the family’s interests, or sometimes for the training of clergy, who needed a broad understanding of the best that humans had thought and written to inform their preaching.
STEM education also offers the opportunity for advance for those whose station in life otherwise does not allow it. And it emphasizes that scientific rigor, mathematical precision, the ability to translate scientific theory into technological innovations that promote human flourishing are equally marks of education along with understanding what the best that has been thought, performed, or written contribute to educating that has as its end learning to live the well-lived life.
There is another issue that actually places the humanities and STEM over and against another form of post-secondary education–training in skilled trades such as carpentry, electricians work, plumbing, and the skills required to maintain and prepare our many machines from computers to cars to the climate control of our buildings. Most of these also involve significant training beyond that of high school but of a different sort than college education. But they have a common end–they prepare people for good work that is both needed and economically beneficial. There is an old saw that says that the society that despises both its philosophers and plumbers is in trouble, because then neither its ideas nor its pipes hold water!
We are tempted to create hierarchies of more or less noble work. Do we consider the work of the electrician who wires a building well as important as that of the electrical engineer designing the latest micro-chip? Do we consider HVAC technicians who configure systems to heat and cool a building efficiently as important as historians who clear away national myths with a more honest rendering based on sources of our national beginnings. Might all these be done Coram Deo, before God, with God-pleasing excellence? For that matter, was not even the orderly’s work in transporting me to a room where I could receive good medical care, offering me a warmed blanket and a friendly voice, noble work. I think so and was struck that all our conversations about educational priorities must keep in mind people like the man who served me so well and wants more for himself and his family. It seems that is a most “human” thing to do.