"I regret not taking more history in college," the doctor of infectious diseases confessed to me. "I was afraid of it. I was good at math. It had right and wrong answers. History was all gray areas. But now I'm fascinated by it."
To anyone who thinks of history as facts and dates, and as a subject both dull and easy, this may come as a surprise. Surely someone who ended up as a specialist physician is a smart cookie? She might have been bored by history classes, but surely not intimidated?
Yet she was. History requires creative thought, consideration and reconsideration of evidence, and an acceptance that we can seldom be certain of anything. And for some students, smart though they are, this is frightening.
Not that all STEM students shy away from the humanities. Engineers were among my best college students. I suspect this was because they tend to be broadly curious, and that their curiosity cannot be contained within the walls of STEM: When I asked one of my engineers what the attraction was, he said that it was that history dealt with colorful, unpredictable people.
STEM and the humanities are not as far apart as many people assume. As we endure the throes of a STEM fixation in public education, I find myself marveling that people making decisions about curriculum are too often themselves insufficiently educated, and that they don't understand that history is essential to understanding science. Indeed, the very first book I was assigned in grad school, in a course on the 20th century U.S., was Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which demolished the idea that science is pure and objective. And we cannot understand any scientific subject without grasping that it has a history.
Unlike the good doctor, not all young people have a passion for advanced science and mathematics (and the world would be a pretty dull and possibly scary place if they all did). Not all young people have an aptitude for advanced history, either. But all children deserve to have the opportunity to develop intellectual curiosity, to find their passions without being railroaded, and to learn early about the gray areas. When elementary school children may be exposed to social studies (of which history is only one part) as little as once a week, and are subjected to stultifying curriculum when they are, we are shutting down parts of their brains that we ought to be developing, no matter what plans they (or, more likely, we) have for their future careers.