Who is going to change the world?

Who’s going to change the world? Engineers.

So says ExxonMobil in their new campaign to entice young minds into STEM programs. They have a great commercial that airs frequently on programs I watch, and it is compelling.

But something about it has been bothering me, and I hadn’t been able to figure it out until I happened on another YouTube video posted by NPR.

This video, “A Liberal Arts Curriculum in Two Minutes” helped me to identify what was nagging at me about the invitation to engineering.

Liberal Arts has lately taken a back seat to STEM. Degrees in liberal arts, mine included, are often deemed “useless.” As our world becomes more and more intricately driven by technology, science, technology, engineering and math are definitely needed to compete in this world.

The “What”

Building technology, buildings, ecosystems, medical interventions, military weaponry and other products requiring deep knowledge and curiosity leading to innovation are critically important to our country and our world. They provide solutions to problems of increasing severity.

This is “the what.” The products are things; tangible applications of knowledge into useful and important “things.”

For every new “thing” introduced, there are consequences of their use. These consequences may be very simple, like the new Smartphones taking over human communication. They may be highly complex, like preserving the myriad contributions to a single ecosystem. And then, there are “things” that have catastrophic consequences, like weaponry or even the hacking of personal data from our technology systems.

“Things” are put to use.

Smartphones become a personal necessity. They tempt bad behavior, such as texting while driving.

Disruptions of ecosystems occur because of man’s behavior. The use of fossil fuels, destruction of forests, pollution in rivers and oceans all point back to actions and decisions that have unimagined consequence.

The sophistication of our technology systems has shifted the “bad guy” from riding into town on a horse, guns blazing, to sitting behind a computer trying to break into code. Law enforcement has shifted also to profiling the behavioral aspects of the hackers in order to track them down.

Military conflicts use advanced weaponry, but their use and effectiveness lies in human behavior. Decisions cost human lives. Consequences can be dire.

The “How”

So as I watched this video, I thought – “okay, that’s what’s been bothering me about this engineering and STEM focus.” Take a look…

Getting past the evolution portion at the beginning, every event portrayed in this two minutes of “us” is an example of human behavior. Everything. It is “how” STEM is used that creates success or failure.

Liberal Arts and Humanities teach human behavior. The lessons of history give us insight into how behavior of people, leader, or countries have erred and succeeded. We can look at the rise of the Nazi party, and the behavior of those who saw the danger early, but did nothing about it. We can look at the clashes of tribes over hundreds of years, and take lessons on strength and weakness.

Philosophy and literature provides insight from those who imagine the unimaginable, and create word pictures of the consequences of human behavior, from the origins of politics as early as ancient Rome, to the naïve youth of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, to the science-fiction-based apocalyptic devastation of World War Z, the growth of a virus. We see human behavior at its best and its worst, and we learn.

The study of language and culture offers insight into understanding and respecting differences. This lesson is especially important even to STEM practitioners, as nothing today happens without global reach.

From the author of the video:

“It is a visually stunning trip through our history, starting at the Big Bang and ending far out into the future, presumably after the death of the sun…integrating humans into the rest of the cosmos.

It shifts from the physical and biological sciences to the social sciences and humanities. How wonderful it all is – and what a mess we make of ourselves and the world…our choices chart our future.”

We see too much bad behavior today, but yet we continue to tout STEM, in schools, in business, and in politics at the expense of liberal arts and humanities. At what point do we step back and acknowledge that human behavior will be the key to making STEM work for us, not against us? At what point do we begin paying attention to human behavior and learning lessons from those who came before us?

The complexities of STEM pale next to the complexities of human behavior. The variables – every one of us, and every one of our ideas and perceptions, complicates behavior exponentially. But we can choose to channel behavior by honoring this complexity, spending time looking at behavior and behavioral consequences, and shaping behavior for future generations so that all the work on STEM can create wonder rather than devastation.

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