How the humanities, not STEM, can lead Chinese students towards creative innovation

Elaine Tuttle Hansen is delighted to see bright students in the US from Hong Kong and mainland China choose rigorous non-STEM courses, as the flexible thinking they learn in humanities classes will fuel future creativity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2017, 4:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2017, 8:12pm

Most international students of all ages studying in the US focus on STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths. This is certainly the case at the Johns Hopkins Centre for Talented Youth, where they excel in challenging courses, from astrophysics to zoology. But when I explored what 2,000 students from mainland China and Hong Kong at the centre are studying this year, I was thrilled to see nearly 22 per cent are choosing subjects like writing, philosophy and logic.

Why am I excited that some of the world’s brightest pre-college students are pursuing rigorous non-STEM courses? Because future global citizens who study the humanities – including language, literature, history and philosophy – will be best prepared for success in a world that increasingly depends on innovation and creativity.

Premature specialisation can create narrow, unimaginative thinkers

Many well-intentioned parents and educators think we are doing right by our children and their future careers by allowing specialisation at an early age. We’re not. Premature specialisation can create narrow, unimaginative thinkers. As educational psychologists Jonathan Plucker and Ronald Beghetto concluded, “Someone who focuses tightly for long periods of time in a domain or on a particular task is likely to experience functional fixedness.”

A key educational outcome if we want to foster creativity is “flexible thinking”, the ability to test and transfer knowledge within and across domains. In the humanities, we don’t just learn about historical events or parse Shakespeare’s words; we discuss, interpret and communicate complex ideas – skills necessary to solving today’s problems.

Humanities study fosters social and emotional learning; increasing evidence suggests language study may open neural pathways, reading and artistic activities foster empathy, and studying history and politics develops social awareness.

Even brilliant thinkers must learn how to translate their ideas, tell stories that persuade others to fund and implement their vision, and assess the risks their advances may entail.“Technology alone is not enough,” said Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who audited his college calligraphy class after dropping out, and applied his knowledge to the typography used in the first Macintosh computer.

“It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that makes our hearts sing.”

That’s why, amid declarations that the humanities are dead and only scientists, mathematicians and engineers can save the world, my heart sings to see students from mainland China and Hong Kong studying writing, philosophy and logic.

Elaine Tuttle Hansen is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Centre for Talented Youth, the former president of Bates College, and past provost of Haverford College