Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Humanities as a Force Multiplier


Earlier this week I witnessed something special. I watched as my partner delivered a lecture
to an audience of mostly STEM majors about the importance of Filipinas in Filipino and Filipino-American history. As the presentation reached its crescendo, I saw multiple undergraduate's eyes light up, thoroughly enraptured by a subject they had never before considered. After the lecture's end, a group of STEM undergraduates approached my partner, asking her questions and telling her that she had changed how they would view their own work. It was then that something clicked for me. I thought to myself, “this is why the humanities matter.”

One of the women who approached my partner is studying to become a civil engineer. She is Filipino American, but was unfamiliar with the history of both the Philippines and Filipino Americans. As a civil engineer, her primary interest is in figuring out ways to get clean water to vast populations of people. Up to this point though, she did not know where she wanted to apply her skills.

While watching the lecture, however, the civil engineer realized that her talents might be best served in the Philippines. She learned that the Philippines has been plagued by colonialism for centuries, and that this, along with other forms of internal strife, has limited people’s access to basic necessities, like clean water. As such, she told my partner that she was considering traveling to the Philippines and working there, where her talents would make an even greater impact than they would in the United States.

But even if she doesn’t move to the Philippines, she said that she was now much more aware of how social forces, among them imperialism, colonialism, and racism, can in some ways be ameliorated by the work of civil engineers such as herself, so long as they remain aware of said issues. A civil engineer who is aware of history is a better civil engineer, because they’ll be more likely to devote some of their talents to helping people—like those in the Philippines—who lack access to clean water. While this might not be the most lucrative career path, it’s the path that will eventually lead to a better world overall.

That is what I mean when I say that the humanities and social sciences can be a force multiplier to STEM and other in vogue fields. Anyone who is aware of why the world is as it is today, and has the ability to think critically about how issues such as colonialism and racism tip the balance in favor of one group over another, will have more respect for the myriad issues facing people on this planet. And because of this, they’ll be more likely to help people, regardless of the perceived economic benefit
(or lack-thereof) of such actions.

Two other undergraduates spent a while talking to my partner. One is studying to be a journalist, the other a biomedical engineer. The lecture convinced the aspiring journalist to create a blog tackling a variety of social issues in the world. They also said that it was nice to see a fellow Filipina give a lecture, since it made them feel empowered to do the kind of work they want to do. Hearing about the actions of powerful pinay women, and knowing that the battles they fought are largely ongoing to this day, fueled their passion be the best journalist they can be.

The biomedical engineer was similarly affected. Though she is Filipino American, she was unaware of the history of the Philippines and how women played an important role in liberating it from its variety of colonial oppressors. She also didn’t know much about the plight facing Filipina Americans and other women of color in the U.S. today, not realizing that, in many ways, they face as much marginalization as their predecessors.

Before the lecture, she was hesitant about going to graduate school, but afterwards, she became adamant about it. One of the things holding her back was a fear that there was no place for Filipina Americans in graduate school, especially for biomedical engineering. But the lecture—showcasing the heroic deeds of Filipina women in a variety of impossible situations—along with the example given by myself and my partner, demonstrated to her that graduate school was worth pursuing, even if the road is difficult. She didn’t want to let down those who came before her.

I can say from personal experience that I too have benefited from this “force multiplier” effect. Before my undergraduate career, I was rather conservative politically. It wasn’t until I started reading history books and going to history lectures that I realized the error of my ways. For somebody who is aware of the centuries of human suffering the world has endured, and the reasons for why it generally occurs, it is difficult to maintain anything but a liberal outlook.

Of course, simply studying the humanities doesn’t make one a good person, as seen by the elitism plaguing so many universities. That said, it definitely can be the key to unlocking a better path for humanity. In the case of the civil engineer, the journalist, and the biomedical engineer discussed above, introducing them to the humanities via an effective and passionate educator opened their eyes to a new world. The more we understand the people around us, the more we’ll understand ourselves and the societies we live in. And, in my mind at least, there’s nothing more valuable than that.

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