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Humanities and Social Sciences: Complements Not Competitors to STEM Disciplines

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Dr. Andrew Taylor

Dr. Andrew Taylor

By: Jordan Smith

Nonprofits can play a role in shaping public discourse. For example, the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences has issued a call to action, The Heart of the Matter. This report is a response to calls for increased budget for and attention to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. It highlights the role that the humanities and social sciences play in the advancement of our nation.

As Dr. Andrew Taylor, Professor of Political Science in the School of Public and International Affairs at NC State argues, nonprofits not only provide a vehicle for promoting the importance of the humanities and social sciences in public discourse, they are one way to provide space for civic engagement and discourse to practice these disciplines. “Nonprofits can help by taking this ‘teaching’ outside of the academy,” states Dr. Taylor. The National Humanities Center, located in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, and the NC Humanities Council are two examples of nonprofits that promote humanities-based research and practice in the public discourse.

Dr. Walt Wolfram

Dr. Walt Wolfram

The National Humanities Center annually admits 40 fellows from around the world to conduct research at their center. Scholars in both the United States and 30 other countries have taken advantage of this tremendous opportunity. In addition to aiding humanities scholars in their research, the National Humanities Center puts this research on display for the larger community in book publications, lectures, conferences, exhibitions, and other cultural events. They also make various materials available to teachers to use in their classroom through TeacherServe, an online curriculum enrichment tool.

On a statewide scale, the NC Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, takes on the mission of “exploration and celebration of the many voices and stories of NC’s culture and heritage.” They invite scholars to participate in this mission through their Caldwell Award, of which Dr. Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of English Linguistics, is the 2008 recipient. They engage with the community through public presentations (Road Scholars), the Museums of Main Street program (MoMS), a library discussion series (Let’s Talk About It), and other programs.

Looking Deeper into The Heart of the Matter

The central argument of The Heart of the Matter, as stated in the report’s Executive Summary, is: “As we strive to create a more civic public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.”

Dean Braden

Dean Braden

Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Jeff Braden, speaks to the leadership role that NC State plays in underscoring the importance of these disciplines. Since NC State is largely thought of as a technical school, they are uniquely positioned to have a strong voice in advocating for the importance of the humanities and social sciences.

Dean Braden goes further explaining the relationship between the liberal arts and values of our nation. The United States is not so known for its advancements in technology; rather we are understood as a nation because of our history, our political standing, and our core values. These are the things that define us as a nation. Coincidentally, these are subjects that are taught in the humanities and social sciences.

Expanding upon that, Dr. Taylor asserts that as instructors in the humanities and social sciences, “We teach our students important life and career skills such as problem-solving and effective communication. We build critically-thinking citizens with an appreciation for public life and individual liberty that together form the robust civil society requisite for national success.”

It is important that we understand the values of these disciplines so that they are not continually undermined, put under the microscope, or pushed out for the benefit of another discipline; it is similarly important to understand that no discipline is greater or lesser than the other. This need for continual justification of different disciplinary departments forgets that each discipline is the key to what Dr. Wolfram aptly terms “a perspective that is inclusive, complimentary, and interdisciplinary.”

The humanities and social sciences take the theory and data of the STEM disciplines and lend it humanistic value. Dr. Taylor reminds us that “for a scientific innovation to be successful, its developers must understand the political, social, policy, historical, economic, moral, linguistic, and cultural context in which it will function.”

Perhaps this is the reason for a rise of interdisciplinary collaboration between the STEM fields and the humanities and social sciences. It is the work of all these disciplines put together that grants us our understanding of the world we inhabit; like individual pieces of a larger, collaborative, puzzle. Nonprofits can play a vital role in promoting and supporting these collaborations.


Jordan Smith is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition at NC State.

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