Earl Lewis: Here's Why the Smartest Scientists Work with Humanists

Social Historian and Education Expert
November 7, 2016

Earl Lewis, President of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, believes we have two important terms confused: skills development and education. The first is all the practical abilities that will equip a person for their first job – can you read and write, can you code, do you know the most current techniques of your field? The latter is much harder to quantify and teach: can you think autonomously, and go down a path where the endpoint hasn’t been set out for you? Can you pore through a vast array of information and come up with a new answer, entirely your own?

Lewis was around to see the birth of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and tells an amazing anecdote about a few stumbles in the making of that acronym. He then tells a second story, to illustrate that while STEM certainly feels like a priority over other disciplines and trades in the U.S. right now, it’s pivotal that institutions continue to fund and nurture the humanities and that it too holds esteem in public perception.

Lewis tells of a village in West Africa, where contaminated river water was a big problem for the locals. Women would trek down to the river each day and bring preventable infections back with them in their vessels. To remedy this danger, an international agency funded and drilled a well in the center of the village – everyone now had access to safe, clean water. Only the women walked right past the well every day and continued to go to the river bank and bring back contaminated water. The engineers couldn’t understand it, so they brought in anthropologists and gender experts to talk to the women and ask them why they were ignoring this perfect, accessible water?

It turns out the women knew the well water was safer, but it was an important daily ritual for them to be able to walk to the river; to them it was valuable time away from the men and children in the village, and was a scenic and social break from their otherwise domestic existence. On paper, the engineers had put the well in the perfect place, but in practice, they had not understood the complexity of these women’s needs.

It’s the perfect example of how STEM and humanities depend on one another. To fix our world’s most challenging issues, Lewis says, we’re going to need a well-rounded stable of experts from all fields, working as a team.

Earl Lewis and Nancy Cantor recently edited Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society.