STEM and humanities education


I had an interesting experience in the weight room today. The weight room was almost empty at the time; there was one (graduate?) student from India there doing some leg presses and I was doing pull ups on the power rack (has a pull up bar attached). Sometimes, people like to do squats on that rack; note there is a mirror there too.

As I did my pull ups, I noticed that he was looking my way. My guess is that he eventually wanted to do squats; so upon finishing a set he asked me something like “how many sets do I do?”

I THOUGHT that he wanted to know when I’d be done with that rack so he could use it. So, I moved the Olympic bar back to the racks and said “I am done right now!” thinking that he’d be happy with the news.

He looked confused, then smiled and walked away.

It dawned on me that he wasn’t waiting for the rack, but was genuinely interested in my routine!

That is a small matter of little consequence, but it also shows the value of communication and how important it is.

That is where the humanities are so valuable, beyond their inherent worth. Things like communication, ways of thinking and culture matter. Just think of how much better off both the US and Vietnam would have been had we recognized that Vietnam really had no interest in aligning with China (they were historically bitter enemies) or with “Communism”; they wanted independence from ALL of us.

This also reminded me of other issues too, in particular poverty and work and migrant workers.
We watched the film Overnighters last night; it was about one church’s ministry to the workers migrating to North Dakota to take advantage of the oil boom.
We saw that many of these workers had checkered pasts and many had a history of making bad decisions; of course with this influx of workers came things like an increase in crime rates, a decrease of available housing, etc.

This ties in with our culture wars with regards to anti-poverty programs and safety nets.

Some wisdom is essential here: we should remember what has happened in the past as well as being able to wrap our heads around the relevant statistics.
Yes, it is true that many social pathologies are correlated with poverty; one sees substance abuse, sloth, and bad decision making. Yes, many have made life decisions which put them in a bad place to begin with, and in other cases, poverty was the cause of the bad decision making. And in other cases, one just has plain bad luck.

Communication is essential here: many times our conservative friends are right when they point out the pathologies and self-destructive behaviors of some of the poor. Hey, don’t we all have that one relative that is constantly mooching off of others and always wastes whatever money they fall into? And yes, any safety net program WILL end up helping some chronically irresponsible people and there will be some who game the system.

But don’t we have to look at the big picture when we figure out what to do? Sometimes it is counter productive to make “punishing the slackers” our top priority.

Figuring out solutions to these problems does draw on the wisdom that comes from the humanities and the statistical literacy that comes from STEM education.

That leads me to what I’ve seen recently:


I note, with irony, that such memes are passed along via the internet which is reached by things like computers and cell phones! How ironic is that?

Even worse, we see some “why do people have to learn algebra” type stuff coming from those who should know better.

So you say, “ok, algebra might be necessary for future scientists and engineers, but what about the rest of us?”

Well, let’s examine some important issues: what are the implications of economic policies? (change vs. rate of change is brought up here)

What about breast cancer screening implications? How might the average citizen interpret and understand the relevant facts?

Without some mathematical literacy you are flying blind…and even might not know that you are flying blind.


May 20, 2015 - Posted by | economics, education, social/political | ,

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