In defence of the breadth requirement

One of the issues that U of T students complain about frequently is the breadth requirement. While maligned by many students, I’m a big fan. It forces us to take a minimum number of courses across a variety of ‘breadths’ — essentially, very loose subject areas touching on everything from philosophy to chemistry — in order to graduate. In my view, the requirement helps to address one of the biggest problems that we’ll face in the coming decades: the growing divide between arts and science. 

As it stands

This is not a new phenomenon — traces of it can be seen in past decades. Perhaps the most famous example is the lecture delivered at Cambridge University in 1959 by chemist and writer CP Snow, entitled “The Two Cultures.” Even then, couched in that highly privileged, academic environment, Snow recognized that the separation of arts and science would be detrimental to our society moving forward. Recent technological revolutions have made the need to address this divide greater than ever. 

We need to acknowledge that this gap does exist and that it’s widening. In recent years, there has been a steady rise in educational funding for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) on almost all levels of schooling in Western societies, often accompanied by very little gain in performance or student health. Since the mid-1960s, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees that are granted in the ‘traditional’ humanities has fallen by over 10 per cent. Here, ‘traditional’ refers to those subjects for which data is easily trackable between institutions, such as English, history, linguistics, or philosophy.

Similarly, since the mid-1970s, annual funding both requested for and given by the National Endowment for the Humanities has fallen by over $250 million. In the developed world, we are seeing an increasing emphasis on isolated STEM education that lacks any humanities or arts training. We can hardly say that the developing world is any better, where pressures of accelerationism have left millions in systems that prize STEM training so much that there is increasing worry, in areas like China especially, about the lack of adequate humanities graduates entering the workforce.

The benefits 

What are the benefits of keeping these two seemingly opposite systems together?

The first benefit is utilitarian. We can gain an inordinate amount from the successful integration of the humanities into our increasingly technological world. Just look at how quickly Google hires linguists: there is a fundamental disconnect between technology and the people that technology is supposed to reach, and only people with training in the arts can bridge that gap. As technologies reach wider audiences, we need to ask more and more questions about their implementation. 

What will the ‘rules’ be for placing augmented reality technology in areas outside of the safe Silicon-Valley-esque areas in which it will debut, for example? Knowing about cultural boundaries, how do we communicate our quickly advancing knowledge of biotechnology in a way that won’t leave those in colonized and developing nations behind? These are all questions that can’t be answered by science alone. 

Second, there are values that a humanities education inculcates that a science education can’t, and these values will only be harder to attain if the arts/science divide grows. Drew Gilpin Faust, former president of Harvard University, has spoken extensively about how the arts teach us the ways of “critical slowness” in ways that science can’t: “[the value of arts] imparts skills that slow us down — the habit of deliberation, the critical eye, skills that give us capacity to interpret and judge human problems; the concentration that yields meaning in a world that is noisy with information, confusion, and change.”

“The humanities teach us many things, not the least of which is empathy — how to see ourselves inside another person’s experience. How to picture a different possibility.”

The dark side 

New technologies may also affect the less advantaged in a very different way than they would affect those who engineered them. The arts can reach the most vulnerable of us; they convey universal passions and feelings. They can convey concerns about technology in a way that instruction manuals and command lines alone can’t.   

This gets into the most critical reason for why we need to avoid the arts/science divide: the approach of a technocracy. We need to lessen the divisions between disciplines if we are to mediate the effect that technology will have on our most vulnerable. There are important moral problems posed by the technologies we are using — ones that we have, thus far, failed to solve. Automation, for example, could be the holy grail of modern labour, freeing many of us from the shackles of late-stage capitalism and reinventing the future of work. On the other hand, it could make up to six million people in the UK jobless over the next decade, with no short-term solution due to the political system in which this would take place. We commonly develop algorithms to deal with everything from municipal housing allocation to online speech prediction. Without further cultural and social input, however, these algorithms produce results that are at best accidentally discriminatory — and at worst systemically sexist and racist. 

We have heard far too much about how, without the sciences, the arts might become aimless, without a use in the modern world. But without the arts, science will only amplify existing social and cultural imbalances. Without the arts, science will adopt our worst tendencies. We desperately need a way for the arts to have a say in these technological issues. Otherwise, we risk becoming a technocracy. We’re already frighteningly close. 

Toward a union 

My love of science is as much informed by Star Trek and other visions of the future as it is by real-world science, and I hope that there are others out there like me. These visions of the future, after all, may be the best guide we have to lure us away from a technocracy.

Science, for many, is the most human of pursuits — the urge to understand, build, and discover more about our world. But how we present it and interact with it — and whether we, as students of science, can overcome our vanity enough to embrace the arts — may be the key to avoiding the technocracy that seems to be awaiting us. 

And for that, I would happily go through as many breadth requirement courses as necessary.