I recently relistened an interview Ezra Klein did with Danielle Allen (Harvard Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics) in 2019, in which they discuss how science, technology, and business differ fundamentally from politics because the former disciplines assume a set of values that are already ordered by priority (efficiency, profit, etc.) but politics is essentially all about the setting and the reordering of those values. That’s why engineering and STEM have a hard time “fixing” politics and a hard time “solving” more human questions (and perhaps even why STEM majors vote in much smaller numbers than humanities majors).
This is something the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief in the years since Klein and Allen’s conversation. On one level, STEM can “fix” the pandemic by giving us miracle vaccines. But that’s only if we assume a set of values that are held in common by the populace (the health of the community, safety, trust in expertise, etc.) If the values themselves are at issue, as they are surrounding COVID-19, then STEM doesn’t have much to offer, at least for those communities (red state voters, anti-vaxxers) whose values diverge from those assumed by STEM.
This suggests, as Allen argues, that we need to rebalance the school curriculum in favor of humanities education, including paying a greater attention to language (the primary toolkit of politics) and civics. It also suggests the need for more humanities within the STEM curriculum—not just the three-credit add-on ethics courses that characterize engineering programs and medical school, but a real integration of humanities topics, methods, and thinking as part of what it means to “know” about STEM.
This is, of course, something that’s especially appealing to me as a historian of science, but it’s something that should be just as appealing to engineers, who like to frame their work as “problem solving.” If STEM really wants to solve the big problems facing us today, it is going to have to start further back, to solve for more than just technical questions, but also for the values questions that increasingly precede them.