The Australian government’s proposed fee restructuring for universities will have disastrous consequences for the humanities. But it’s bad news for STEM education, too.
How do I know? Because I’m an Australian teaching the history of science to STEM students in a major public university in the United States, and I see first-hand how desperately science undergraduates need training in culture, politics, and society.
They come to my classroom as future geneticists without having ever heard of eugenics. Future doctors without any understanding that medicine can cause pain and injustice just as adeptly as it can give relief. Future engineers who have never had a forum to voice their concerns about how technology can erode our rights as citizens.
As it stands, Australian STEM students are even less exposed to these discussions because, unlike the US system, Australian universities usually do not require students to cross-enroll in humanities credits. This was the case when I was a science undergraduate at the University of Queensland, and I was funneled into science-only courses.
I was never taught that biomedical sciences are social systems — that therapeutic innovation can be racist, sexist and classist. Not once in my science degree did I learn how evolutionary theory was born on the assumptions of white supremacy, and how this racism still reverberates in 21st century institutions. Never was I made to appreciate that our abusive relationship with the environment is at once a scientific, economic, historical and philosophical problem, and that intelligent policy is only created through consultation with experts from all these fields.
I only learned about these things when I stumbled into a humanities elective. Taking this first humanities subject was transformative, and it made me a better scientist. Engaging in discussions about race, class, and gender truly reoriented my engagement with the sciences. Not only did I become better and more creative in my biology classes — who knew that a history class could help me better understand and challenge theories of heredity? — but I had an eye to how science was situated in society.
I saw science for what it is: plonked in a complex social milieu, bigger and more complicated than just “facts” and “data”.
Like me, many science students in Australia stumble into humanities classes and make these same realisations. Some of them do what I did: declare a dual degree in Science/Arts, and continue thinking deeply and compassionately about how STEM works in our world.
Under the new government plan, this fortuitous act of stumbling into a humanities class will occur less often, and less easily. As the door to Arts subjects is closed to science students, so too is an opportunity for enrichment.
Australia’s plan to restructure funding at universities is touted as an investment in the sciences, but it is actually a heavy blow. The next generation will be less equipped to operate in a competitive international marketplace, and less able to adapt their science-making to the increasingly complicated world that demands their attention and expertise.
It takes more than just a science degree to educate future scientists. They need the humanities, too, to train them in a type of critical thinking that cannot be found in a laboratory.
Patrick Walsh is an Australian PhD student in the history of science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He holds a masters degree from the University of Wisconsin, and bachelors degrees with honours from the University of Queensland.