I think that too much has been made of recent statements from Steve Jobs (Apple) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) on higher education. While Jobs stresses the importance of the liberal arts, Gates supports majors that correlate to jobs. That divide could easily be portrayed as liberal arts vs. business, but a recent episode of the radio news show “The Takeaway,” entitled “Liberal Arts vs. Technical Degree,” chose to focus on STEM degrees vs. liberal-arts degrees. This debate seems to be about using education as a way of spouting ideology rather than as a way of expressing a sincere interest in improving American education.
Rather than get bogged down in the centuries-old humanities vs. science war, it is important to keep in mind that not all STEM degrees are technical degrees. While degrees in physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry are not liberal-arts degrees, they are definitely not technical degrees. It may seem as if I’m splitting hairs, but this slippage from science to technical is frequent and more often than not, ideologically driven.
I am a strong supporter of increasing the proportion of science and mathematics in the K-16 curriculum, and I believe that neither should be optional at any stage in a person’s K-16 education. They are as fundamental to a full education as reading and writing. As a nation, we are weak in math and science. When I taught quantitative methods, I was shocked at the level of intellectual paralysis I encountered in the classroom. Brilliant students would freeze when faced with a series of numbers and equations. I heard over and over: “I’m not good at math. I’m not the math type. I’ve never been good at math.” This American affliction represents a lack of buy-in from the general public. As a nation, we do not value literacy in science and math to the same degree that we value literacy in reading and writing. I also feel that there is a core belief that not all students are able to obtain literacy in math and science.
This can be witnessed in many K-8 schools, where science is viewed as a “special” topic, with less than 45 minutes a week devoted to scientific subjects. Quite frankly, that is a national embarrassment. However, this should not be surprising. If we do not expect all students to obtain literacy in science and math, then we will not require it, and if we do not require it, then our teachers will not feel comfortable teaching it, and it will remain a “special” topic.
I have never understood the perception of a divide between science and humanities. In life, they are combined; only in education are they unnaturally divided. Perhaps I am too much of a romantic, taken in by DaVinci’s model of the Renaissance man. My favorite memories from K-8 involved dissecting a worm, making an incubator for the science fair, collecting seeds and pods in the field next to the school, and learning about all the different types of clouds. My favorite class in high school was physics. I was lucky to have had some fantastic science teachers in primary and secondary school.
I have no memories of my science and math professors telling us that reading and writing were unimportant or optional. I can’t say the same for my humanities professors. The intentional shift of discussions about STEM to a debate about professional degrees in the humanities vs. the sciences is ideological. I have witnessed how some folks in the liberal arts have grown to resent the “hard” sciences for the higher salaries they command, the higher grant funding they receive, the stronger voice they have on campus, and the like. There is no place for such petty resentment when it comes to creating a core curriculum for our undergraduate students. It’s time to get over turf wars and departmental infighting driven by ideological divides. It’s time to start asking more of our students and demanding more from American education.