A degree in science, in addition to specific facts about squid, neutrinos, or palladium-catalysed cross-couplings, should teach students what to do with questions about the world. In particular, they should learn to think about what the implications would be of each answer to the question, and know how we might use these implications to rule out some of the answers and reduce our uncertainty about others.
A degree in the humanities, in addition to specific facts about tenses in French, resource-allocation procedures in village societies, or the development of the Sangam literature, should teach students what to do with questions about the world. In particular, they should learn to think about what questions should be asked on a particular topic, the different ways these could be answered, and whose interests are served by systems that promote one question or answer over another.
Of course, there’s some overlap in all disciplines, and a lot in some disciplines (such as, say, linguistics, statistics, geography, sociology), but I think a lot of academics would recognise these divisions, for good or bad.
So, when faced with a claim that by adding extra tertiary places in science and engineering
The country could lose “an informed and thoughtful citizenry which understands the history and cultures of a diverse nation and supports social and economic innovation and international engagement”.
we’d hope that someone with science training would ask if there’s any empirical support for the idea that people with science degrees are less informed and thoughtful, or less supportive of social and economic innovation and international engagement. We’d also hope that they would have some idea how empirical support or refutation could be generated if it wasn’t available.
We’d hope that someone with humanities training might wonder who was making this claim, and why the media thought it was the most important issue about current funding allocations to NZ universities, and which personal interests and historical power structures this choice of issue tends to assume and reinforce.
Hey, I didn’t start this. And it’s not hard to find an argument for increased humanities funding that I’d support. But this wasn’t it.