Withering Humanities?

Every few years there seems to be a trend, or a fad, in regard to the currents of higher education.  Based upon a belief of future career opportunities, certain majors and professional degrees are singled out as the epitome of the successful future career trajectory.  Parents steer their children, even at a very young age, towards a profession that is forecast to be THE career of the future.

At one time, medicine and physicians were the standout career choice.  That was until medicine became bogged down with the paperwork of insurance and government forms.  Practicing doctors now will sometimes suggest that students avoid the world of medicine for a career.

Subsequently, attorneys and the law were highlighted.  But did that create a glut of attorneys, especially as the technological world streamlined much of the legal paperwork?  Students coming out of law school with a JD, but often with an average $100,000 student loan debt, are lucky to land a job in law today.  Some graduating law students have even gone so far as to sue their law school for misrepresenting post-graduate opportunities for lawyers [e.g. class action suits filed against 1) New York Law School, 2) Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, and 3) the Thomas M. Cooley Law School].

Now, the emphasis in higher education is on the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] majors.  Despite the fact that the costs to colleges of a STEM major are often significantly higher than a liberal arts major, Florida Governor Rick Scott is proposing both adding more funding to the STEM programs at the state’s public colleges and making the STEM majors tuitions lower than liberal arts majors.  His point is a belief that Florida will need STEM graduates for the jobs of the future. 

As a society, we seem to go to this narrow focus of ‘right’ program on a regular basis. 

Fearing a US competitive disadvantage to students from China and from India, President Obama in November 2009 launched his “Educate to Innovate” campaign to make the improvement of STEM education a national priority.

While we are moving into a highly technological age with the tools of STEM necessary implements, what does that hold for the humanities and liberal arts programs?

In a 2011 study report of 450 employers who were asked what they looked for in college graduates, researchers at Oklahoma State University found that the three top skills they sought in college graduate prospective employees were: communication skills, critical thinking skills and writing skills.

With the US secondary school public education largely geared to ‘teaching to the test’ in preparation of college, many of the rudimentary traditional skills of the three Rs [reading, writing and arithmetic] have been negated in early education.  It is staggering to realize how few graduating high school students have the ability to think critically, analyze rationally, devise innovatively, much less communicate clearly and write effectively.

The liberal arts and the humanities may be suffering in colleges but they are far from irrelevant.  They suffer during this economic downturn because students are seeing college education as ‘career education’ and college as a vocational training school to be prepared for their career trajectory. 

In an article entitled “Bucking Cultural Norms, Asia Tries Liberal Arts” by Karin Fischer in the February 5th, 2012, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fischer writes: “In South Korea, a declaration by the late Apple chief Steve Jobs that equal parts liberal learning and technological know-how were critical to the computer giant’s success has kindled interest in the humanities.”

The societies in the east have long emphasized the STEM focus on education.  Now, the US is focusing on STEM programs.  While attentive to future career prospects and workforce needs, does such a singular focus on STEM create a narrow vision to the point of an automaton?  Is such intent specialization a boon to society or could it prove a bane to society?

By reason of their nascent interest in liberal arts, the eastern societies are questioning their over-reliance on specialization and STEM programs, recognizing that the creative thrust of ingenuity, innovativeness and individuality has been lost to the narrow focus of technician.

Does higher education have to take an either / or approach to liberal arts and STEM? 

No, on the contrary, we are beginning to see a greater interdisciplinary approach, which combines both the STEM focus with a liberal arts inclusion.  As James Winebrake, dean of Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Liberal Arts, stated in a 2011 interview: “STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] students that participate in liberal arts curricula as double majors or concentrations are more creative problem-solvers than those who do not. They are more fully aware of the social context of their work, and are more thoughtful in considering how their actions and decisions affect others. These are the types of engineers and scientists that the world needs.”

His point goes to what Steve Jobs declared as noted in the Fischer article above and the increased interest in liberal arts in Asia.

The specialist has been de rigueur in recent years to the detriment of the generalist.  We have concentrated on the micro to the lost perspective of the macro.

Interdisciplinary approaches to higher education can correct this imbalance, as does the wave of online courses that allows the student to draw upon the greatest minds through the archived presentations available on the Internet.

Liberal arts are valuable assets in college education, for they help the student to open their mind, broaden their perspective and develop peripheral vision.

The humanities are not a lost art but an essential requisite for an aspiring and fulfilling future.