Liberal Arts & Humanities vs Science,Math and STEM: What If Educational Leaders Are On Wrong Side of History?

What if we as education leaders are wrong about all this hype about the supremacy of math and science as being the keys to our future and the futures of our students? What if all this STEM hype ends up being just another one of those fads that takes hold of education from time to time?

It’s true that education leaders have been wrong before. Just tour some of the open education buildings constructed during the 60s and 70s, when well-meaning education leaders took the idea of open education to mean that education should take place in a physical environment without walls. What did they do? They built school buildings that did not have walls between classrooms. There are other times too when educational leaders have gotten it wrong as well, that’s why the never-ending cycle of fads continue unabated. But what if we are also wrong about the current utilitarian fetish with all things math and science? Could it be that we are providing our students with plenty of technical skills, but also leaving them soul-less and unable to to even ask the bigger questions about our existence?

In his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz makes a powerful argument for the value of the humanities and a liberal arts education. This argument is needed now, more than ever, as recent events in Wisconsin demonstrate. There, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, has plans to drop 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences (see article here.) They are doing so to address declining enrollment problems and budget deficits. The real reason for dropping these majors? According to the Washington Post article, “The push away from the liberal arts and toward workplace skills is championed by conservatives who see many four-year colleges and universities as politically correct institutions that graduate too many students without practical job skills–but with liberal political views.” In other words, these liberal arts programs are graduating students who engage in thinking that is found objectionable. Instead, what is desired are unthinking workers who will simply go their jobs each day and unquestioningly do as they are told.

There is real danger when educational leaders start talking just about employability, science, mathematics and utilitarian education. Our education system, from pre-kindergarten to the doctoral level needs and must have the humanities and liberal arts. As Deresiewicz points out, “In the liberal arts, you pursue the trail of inquiry wherever it leads. Truth, not use or reward, is the only criterion.” Liberal arts and the humanities are important so that we do have individuals who can think beyond the existing boundaries and ask the tough questions about our lives, our society, and our world. If you want graduates who will simply engage in “inquiry that leads to pre-determined outcomes,” then the answer is to make all education instrumental and utilitarian, where the focus is technical and on immediate employability.

I think Deresiewicz offers us powerful reasons to critique and not unquestioningly fall in line with the adoption of STEM and all that hype over math and science. He makes the case for a liberal arts education and its importance to the souls and well-being of our students, and our future. We do need both, and his words below are worth repeating at length:

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you to learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free. That’s why the humanities are central to a real college education. You don’t build a self out of thin air, by gazing at your navel. You build it, in part, by encountering the ways that others have done so themselves. You build it, that is, with the help of the past. The humanities–history, philosophy, religious studies, above all, literature and the other arts–are the record of the ways that people have come to terms with being human. They address the questions that are proper to us, not as this or that kind of specialist, this or that kind of professional, but as individuals as such–the very questions we are apt to ask when we look up from our work and think about our lives. Questions of love, death, family, morality, time, truth, God, and everything else within the wide, starred universe of human experience.” (p. 155-156, Excellent Sheep)

I can’t but help but wonder that the hype over math and science, and especially STEM and the desire to devalue the humanities and liberal arts is all connected. No one is talking about teaching students to think critically and for themselves any more. No one speaks of asking students to inquire in the greater questions about our world–such as the environment, justice, morality–instead we simply want them to be able to solve ‘technical problems” using science and math. We want them to be “good workers.” Whatever happened to wanting them to be exemplary humans?