The Haverford School’s academic education provides students with myriad opportunities. By the time a student has graduated, he will have engaged in studies of literature, American and world history, physics, chemistry, biology, advanced math, foreign languages, and more. Despite this well-rounded compilation of subjects, questions arise whether students are exposed to each of these topics with equal emphasis.
Educational communities across the United States began to stress the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) early in the 21st century. In 2012, President Barack Obama expanded a government program to reward states for improvements in STEM education. But, as STEM has gained prominence, two separate yet equally important concerns have emerged: some teachers worry that the humanities, the discipline that studies human society and culture, has been deemphasized. Furthermore, mathematics and science teachers are concerned that a separation of STEM and the humanities suggests these are opposing disciplines, a perception that undermines the interdisciplinary approach. Herein lies the debate: does this divide exist in a way that impacts Haverford’s academic philosophy? Or is it simply a fallacy created by a misconception among students?
Although STEM teachers emphasize the similarities between the two categories, some humanities teachers worry that their subjects have been deprioritized. History Department Chair Ms. Hannah Turlish has observed a recent decline in historical studies, which she suggests has had a negative impact on the current state of the world. She believes that “the increasing trivialization of history and not looking at it as as valuable of a concentration as math or science” is a worrying trend. Ms. Turlish thinks that the world is in dire need of recognizing the importance of facts, a skill that “history teaches people to interpret and utilize.”
“I would like the world to care more about facts and defending facts.”History Department Chair Ms. Hannah Turlish
“I regularly say with my history colleagues that I expected—or hoped—nationwide or even worldwide, that once we got to a point a few years ago where people were making up things and calling them true, that there would be a sudden swing back to honoring history as something to emphasize and perhaps elevate,” Ms. Turlish said. “I would like the world to care more about facts and defending facts.”
One fundamental element of studying history and the humanities, which may contribute to its declining popularity, is the need to embrace discomfort. The humanities, as a study of human nature through culture, inherently challenges an individual’s perception of the world. Ms. Turlish explained that when she was a teenager, no one forced her to lean into her discomfort, noting that her AP U.S. History course “was about memorizing battles,” not understanding the origins and consequences of crises. While Ms. Turlish said that she “want[s] kids to get uncomfortable,” she recognizes that “it’s hard” and can discourage people from continuing studies in her field.
Still, Ms. Turlish hopes that students will recognize what is valuable to study and pursue. She does not discourage lives in STEM, but rather encourages learning and “get[ting] to a more compassionate place in terms of what to do with one’s life and what’s valuable.” Ms. Turlish followed this statement with an important distinction: “It’s not [Haverford] systematically making [a split] between STEM and the humanities,” she said, expressing that societal standards frequently influence students’ choices about their futures and that there is little that Haverford can do about that.
Despite the school’s aim to promote disciplines equally, the student body may be more inclined to reject the humanities as a viable career option, particularly because of societal pressure for financial success. Although not exclusively a result of STEM, the belief that studies in the humanities do not lead to financially successful careers may be bleeding the humanities dry. Ms. Turlish worries that there’s only so much the school can do to influence what kids see as important or not.
“We can’t control […] societal forces, like the widespread pressure to major in finance and go work on Wall Street,” Ms. Turlish said.
She identifies shifts into the financial sector as one reason for declining interest in history on a national level.
English Department Chair Mr. Thomas Stambaugh said, “We do have a lot of students whose primary aim is to be what they would define as some sort of financial success. And so the marketability of someone’s skills is something that has to come into play.”
Students may distance themselves from the humanities not due to a rejection of the field or a lack of interest, but rather a need to build a viable portfolio of skills to enter the financial world. But Mr. Stambaugh believes that the world is desperate for “people caring about the social problems in our country and working to fix them.”
“I don’t know if the world is calling out for more money managers right now,” Mr. Stambaugh said. “The Haverford School may be supplying the world with something that it might not need.”
Although STEM teachers do not notice a significant shift in students’ academic priorities, the teachers do agree on one fundamental point: it is not necessarily Haverford decreasing the importance of the humanities or prioritizing STEM—it is society as a whole.
Science Department Chair Dr. Daniel Goduti said, “Some of [the perception of humanities opposing STEM] may be more of a global feeling. There’s historically been silos between disciplines, but I don’t know if we as The Haverford School attempt to maintain those bright lines between disciplines. It’s more of just an artifact of the things that one needs to learn to graduate from school.”
Dr. Goduti thinks that the idea of a conflict between STEM and the humanities is a false narrative.
“I agree that students might perceive some sort of divide, but if there is it’s not intentional, and it’s not actually real,” Dr. Goduti said.
Generally, students view their science and math electives as separate disciplines from their English and history classes, and STEM teachers view this as a mistake, albeit a common one. Math Department Chair Mr. Justin Gaudreau noted that “perception can become reality, but reality isn’t always what is perceived.”
Mr. Gaudreau brings a unique perspective to this topic. A former history teacher, but current math teacher, with bachelor’s degrees in both topics, Mr. Gaudreau describes himself as “a walking contradiction” of a major difference between STEM and the humanities.
“I would argue that the skills I used in a math classroom and the skills I used in a history classroom were very similar,” Mr. Gaudreau said. “[One] may go about it different pathways but skill-wise, we’re marching toward the same point.”
Dr. Goduti described this relationship between disciplines as “trying to make sense of humanity but [doing] it in slightly different ways.”
Mr. Stambaugh concurred: “Critical thinking would unite all of these disciplines.”
Creating a well-rounded student who can apply his skills from each discipline to another is a primary goal of Haverford’s liberal arts education. The school’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan contains a section titled “Essential Qualities of a Haverford Graduate.” The excerpt describes each of its listed goals as representing a “background of superior liberal arts education.” The school strives to express the importance of each subject because, as Mr. Gaudreau stated, “The only place in the world where these subjects [are] siloed is in academia…in school […] Globally, we are driving the school toward this idea of global citizenship.” He emphasized that he hopes students will see “the connective tissue that is across all of the disciplines.”
Mr. Stambaugh said that he “see[s] a world that is crying out for liberal arts graduates.”
As a school providing a full liberal arts education, Haverford requires credits that both comply with state law and reflect a commitment to all fields of study. As such, Mr. Gaudreau believes that Haverford provides equal opportunity in each subject.
“[Set course requirements are] done purposefully,” he said.
“Haverford has historically been a liberal arts school,” Mr. Stambaugh said. “We want to expose students to the widest range of possible expertise in lots of different subjects.”
He recognizes that each discipline is vital to shaping active and knowledgeable citizens.
“We need scientists, we need mathematics, we need to understand our history, we need American citizens who are informed about this country’s past, how the country works […] we need people to know how to use language to know how to express themselves effectively,” Mr. Stambaugh said. “Art is the most powerful way for us to connect with the humanity of others.”
With a goal of providing a comprehensive liberal arts education to each of its students, Haverford’s programs in both STEM and the humanities are built to teach students to think, meet challenges, and become responsible citizens.
Despite any sense of division between disciplines, each class works to develop and hone the skills to prepare boys for life. But as Mr. Gaudreau stated, perception can become reality. Thus, a perception, particularly one amongst students, that STEM and the humanities are separate, at odds with each other, and even not of equal importance, can become a reality experienced by students and faculty alike. Therefore, even without societal forces or forces in the school creating division, it still exists.
Despite challenges encountered, Mr. Stambaugh believes that the school is “still producing graduates who have an appreciation for a wide range of human experience,” he said. “It would be a sign of success for a liberal arts school if we had students going into a wide variety of fields.”