The Wedge Driving Academe's Two Families Aparttags: humanities, STEM
David A. Hollinger is a professor of history emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton University Press, 2013).
More than one scientist friend at the University of California at Berkeley has complained to me recently that the stuff coming out of English departments seems pretty wacky. And whenever there is some silly petition before the faculty senate, these friends observe, it is the humanities types who show up to support it, so the scientists and engineers have to go to the meeting to vote the damn thing down. My friends in the English department also whisper in my ear. Those characters in the STEM fields will do anything the corporations want so long as it keeps their labs going. They don't have any feeling for the function of universities in advancing critical thinking; they just want to advance their own careers and train more techies.
These often ignorant and misguided, but sometimes justified, common complaints from the two major families in the American academic world would not be worth talking about if the grousing did not illustrate the vulnerability of academe to a wedge being driven between the two groups by outside forces. That wedge threatens the ability of all modern disciplines to provide—in the institutional context of universities—the services for which they have been designed.
The wedge pushes apart the natural sciences on the one hand and the human sciences on the other, or, speaking in terms more often used today, the STEM disciplines (embracing medicine) and the social sciences and the prodigious expanse of inquiries that we group together for administrative purposes as the humanities. That there are two such families of academic practice is apparent in multiple settings. Ask an incoming president: A scientist will have to decide if his or her provost can come from the STEM side of the campus, too, or must come from the other side, perhaps an English professor or philosopher or political scientist, and vice versa. Professional schools outside of engineering and medicine complicate the picture somewhat. Journalism and law often find themselves grouped with the social sciences and humanities, while public health is counted among the STEMs. The professors of business are frequently shunned by both families and sob about their rejection all the way to Davos....
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