STEM subjects

It’s a funny old debate, this science vs humanities one. And now Mary Beard is weighing in. Her June 11th blog for the TLS bemoans the fact that of the 12 regius chairs created in the UK to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday, not one has been in the humanities or the social sciences. It’s not that she in any way begrudges the chairs that have been awarded to the sciences, but rather it feels to her as though humanities have been side-lined into the ornamental category, not a valued part of our thrusting, digital, ‘modern’ economy.

Students enjoy our International Space ChallengeSimilarly, there has, for some time, been concern within the languages community who feel that the entirely justifiable promotion of the STEM subjects through big, high profile campaigns has been to the detriment of humanities generally, and particularly languages. Sometimes it’s hard not to agree.

My daughter has just finished her GCSEs and has been choosing A levels. She is the only person in her sixth form to elect to continue with two modern foreign languages, Spanish and German. (Take up of languages at her school is generally rather low, despite excellent teaching staff.) But she is also continuing on with maths. Very many of her cohort has chosen to continue with 3 sciences at A level plus maths. She has asked several of them why they have made this choice. Some have a clear idea – a career in engineering or medicine, for example. Some, though, are taking them with a heavy heart, with the vague idea that they are ‘useful’ and will lead to well-paid jobs. Often parental pressure is at play.

I have two rather strong objections to this. Firstly, the notion that sciences are useful and languages are not. A quick Google search confirms my suspicions: the ability to speak English, Spanish and German fluently enables you to communicate with around 13% of the world’s population (vs 5.5% if you only have English) which includes 4 out of the 10 largest economies in the world. Can someone please explain to me why that will not be useful? And then there are the cultural implications. The study of a language usually entails going to live in another country, which, in turn, entails a greater understanding of the people – who they are, why they have the values they do, their history, their literature, their religion. It’s pretty self-evident in today’s global society why this is useful. If you have to ask, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog.

It’s clearly a total cul-de-sac of an argument to suggest that one body of subjects is more valuable or useful than another. Well taught, both will give you a high level of knowledge and each will bring you ancillary skills such as reasoning, research, communication, attention to detail – the list goes on.

Secondly, I find it altogether depressing that children from the age of 16 are being encouraged to study subjects that they don’t even necessarily like. Education is about so much more than being able to get a job at the end of it all, like some kind of awful, inexorable conveyor belt. What happened to the love or learning, education for education’s sake? Loving what you do is key to fulfilment in later years. You spend too much time at work to be miserable doing it.

But, in any case, STEM and languages are not mutually exclusive. I love the Renaissance ideal of a well-rounded education, the passion for learning which encouraged people of that age to develop their abilities in all areas of accomplishment: intellectual, artistic, social and physical. Man was considered limitless in his capacities for development, and thus should try to embrace all knowledge. (My thanks go to the polymaths at Wiki for pulling this together so succinctly for me!).

At BLC our events aim to showcase as many different options as possible. As well as discussing straight language learning, including ab initio at university, we also create events that combine languages with business, journalism, espionage (!) and, of course, STEM. So we have been delighted to work closely with the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) and the National Space Centre in Leicester to come up with an activity day that combines languages with physics, maths, engineering and architecture, all in one harmonious bundle. We have called this our International Space Challenge and we would love to share the resources we have created with you so you can run your own languages and STEM day. Please contact us today for more information.