Troubadour or techie? The liberal arts vs. STEM debate ramps up

Several readers sent me links to a long piece by Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria, author of “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” in which he warns the zeal for the STEM disciplines should not obscure the importance of a well-rounded liberal arts education.

Such an education, says Zakaria, has proven the key to American “economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Critical thinking, he says, “is the only way to protect American jobs.”

He writes:

A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Zakaria’s piece is long. Take a look before you comment.

And the debate plays on...is the new focus on STEM misplaced?  (Photo.Library of Congress)

And the debate plays on…is the new focus on STEM over the arts and humanities misplaced? (Photo/Library of Congress)

I pulled three interesting comments about the essay from the nearly 2,000 posted, many of which were skeptical of the author’s viewpoint.

The first from a parent: I have a high school sophomore daughter. In history class she is taking notes on the textbook and is expected to regurgitate the information on the test, without too much thought in between. In lit class, she is asked to write drivel about what “Romeo and Juliet” can teach us about True Love, and what “Lord of the Flies” can teach us about Human Nature. It has to sound good, but it doesn’t have to actually mean anything. In chem class, on the other hand, she needs to write clearly, accurately, and intelligently describing lab procedures and writing error analyses. In math class, she needs to take things she has learned before and apply them logically to new and slightly different situations. And she’d like to take Spanish, which would teach her to see the world from a completely new point of view, but she’s too exhausted from all the very pointless history and lit worksheets and had to drop that class. In today’s world, I can’t think of anything that would be more important than citizens who have a basic understanding of how science works, and who can evaluate scientific claims. So yes, I think we need people who are flexible, clear thinking and creative: we need more well taught science classes.

A music major: I couldn’t even finish the article because it was making me want to break something. When it was time to pick a major, I read an article like this. The gist was that everyone has been hearing that STEM is the path to a lucrative future, so STEM fields (especially computers) will be oversaturated by the time I’d be ready to get a job. I checked the box for “Music” instead of “Computer Science.” It’s my biggest regret. If you’re a kid picking a college major and you’re on the fence, DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS MAN. Be a troubadour or a poet or whatever in your free time. Learn a skill that will earn you money.

A Spanish Lit major: Even though it may be useful to have some background in the humanities and soft sciences, I do think the number of majors in those fields should be limited. I have a degree in Spanish Literature; it is utterly useless for a career. I did learn how to write and how to analyze writing, however. That has been immensely useful as has the understanding of Latin American culture and customs. If it weren’t for the minor in Plant Science, I’d be stuck teaching Spanish to a bunch of high schoolers that didn’t care about Borges, Cortázar or Allende.

Reader Comments 1

20 comments
Antagonist
Antagonist

If you give students a strong liberal arts background in high school, there wouldn't be as much need for a strong liberal arts study in college. My emphasis here is on high school. We are rushing the students through high school too quickly and not teaching them to think critically when their minds are still not mature.

fultonschoolsparent
fultonschoolsparent

I knew a lot of liberal arts majors in college and they quite often went on to get law degrees and even medical degrees, among others.  It was seen as a foundation degree for many other careers.  That said, there were also those who now perform in symphonies (after going on to the best music schools - Eastman, Juilliard etc.) or teach music or art quite successfully. They're just about all very happy people.  STEM alone has always seemed rather soul less to me.  There's an important place for the bean counters, but they're not always much fun even with all that money?  Interestingly, I just read two different articles - one about Georgia Tech and the other MIT.  The incoming class at Tech had about 60% with a background in the arts.  MIT was 80%!  I'm thinking that there must be something about the discipline and creativity that the arts bring to the table that helps make these students successful STEM people.

atln8tiv
atln8tiv

A well-rounded education should include a combination of STEM and liberal arts. We need citizens who can do more than simply solve technical challenges to drive business. It's not enough to just understand cause and effect in the lab; we need to be able to anticipate the ethical considerations that come with scientific discovery. I prefer citizens who also have an awareness of history and and human behavior so they don't simply become cogs in the machinery they design and can make informed, independent decisions in the election booth. Otherwise, we risk becoming pawns of the ruling class.

ibeteachin
ibeteachin

I can't overstate the importance of liberal arts/communication skills WITHIN the STEM world.  


A 2014 form letter from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at an unnamed technical university (known for its  stinging mascot and downtown Atlanta location) to high school students begins thus: 


"Dear perspective student,"


Maybe the author of the letter knows the difference between "prospective" and "perspective," or maybe he/she doesn't.  But someone in the office should know.  I discounted the content of the letter due to the mistake in the opening line. Furthermore, I discounted the attention-to-detail of the entire admissions team (and the whole school as well!) since no one caught this glaring mistake before copy and distribution. Shouldn't a technical institution be expected to get the details right?  After all, one little mistake in a math formula and the cyberknife cuts the wrong organ...the rocket flies to the wrong planet...the bridge falls down.  


And for those students who choose STEM majors only to land highly lucrative jobs, what happens when the market is oversaturated with these graduates?  


STEM types need skilled communicators on their teams and vice versa.  The only wrong choice is to believe that one side is more important than the other.



class80olddog
class80olddog

@ibeteachin  I would bet the person in this office that wrote the letter was NOT a graduate with a STEM degree - unless the evil auto-correct took over.


Being a UGA graduate, though, it IS funny!

Looking4truth
Looking4truth

Businesses want workers they don't have to train.  They say that STEM is the way to go.  By defunding (at worst) or discouraging the liberal arts (at a minimum), we are headed for a command economy where your job is assigned to you and you prepare for it throughout your educational career. 


STEM is good for those who want to pursue it.  Others may not.  Why does everything have to be about making money?  Where's the passion and drive to succeed that is in it?  If you're passionate about STEM, go for it!  Don't push me into it.  I know I'm not wired like you. 

ATLPeach
ATLPeach

The reality is STEM is not for everyone.  I enjoyed every minute of my music classes in college.   If i had it to do all over again, I would major in music.  I took the education courses so I could teach, however I have many friends and former classmates that make a living in the music business.   Some make more than others, but they're all happy. Do what you love.  Not everyone wants a corporate job.

straker
straker

It all comes down to which degrees will get you hired and which ones won't.


Business only cares about who can hit the ground running with their new job.


The "importance of a well-rounded liberal arts education" means nothing to them.


Profits are all that matters.

RealLurker
RealLurker

@straker I think you are pushing a little to hard.  If a young person's goal is to be a Senator, then a history degree would be beneficial.  If a young person wants to be a symphony member, then a music degree would be good for their goal.


Not all success can be measured monetarily.  With that said, EVERY student should have career goals BEFORE entering college and deciding on a course of study.  Getting any degree you can with big loans and no plans is absolutely ridiculous.

booful98
booful98

As long as no one expects me to actually PAY for a "well rounded liberal arts education" to the tune of several thousands dollars in college.


I am all for a well rounded education. IN HIGH SCHOOL. College is for career training. I don't care what people say about "learning for its sake". Not when it comes at the expense of incurring crushing students loans the I have no hope of paying back with a "liberal arts" background.

bu2
bu2

A lot of flaws in the article.


Innovation doesn't have to do with liberal arts.  It has to do with our entrepreneurial culture.


Our technological advances have in many cases been created by imported technical talent, taking advantage of our entrepreneurial culture.


And while companies may tell management consultants (quoting a management consultant should already raise your doubts) they want strong basic skills, they hire for specifics.


Where he is right is that communication is important not matter what field you are in.  You need to be able to communicate effectively verbally and in writing.  Although the writing you learn in English usually has to be unlearned when you enter the business world.  You get rid of the varied sentence structure and stick to noun-verb-subject.  KISS.

Astropig
Astropig

@bu2


Bingo!

You can trace a lot of problems in business and just life in general to communication failures.The best communicators in any organization usually have the most rapid and permanent career advancement.

living-in-outdated-ed
living-in-outdated-ed

@bu2 I wouldn't be so quick to discount Zakaria's evidence based assertions. I can tell you that Wall Street hires a great many liberal arts majors from top tier universities!   Liberal arts majors can be entrepreneurs!   

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

I think the choice is up to the individual, but maybe we shouldn't allow 18-22 year-olds to borrow $100K for college without taking a short class in which they would research majors, career outlook etc. Maybe we should require colleges to provide 5 year employment and salary data for graduates from each program.

JennyMod
JennyMod

I think the comments you selected to highlight are simplistic and miss the point. I read Zakaria's article and thought about it completely differently. He's not saying STEM sucks, don't do it. He's saying liberal arts matter and shouldn't be pushed aside and that's true. Liberal Arts prepares you for critical thinking and it is meant to give you a larger understanding. I am married to an engineer and any good engineer will tell you liberal arts is necessary even in their field. It takes all kinds to build a successful society. It is interesting to note that even though engineering is science-based it is also the study of not only how to invent, design, and build but also how to improve structures, machines, systems, and processes for the user. So, if you don't understand the user you won't be as effective. Helping you as an engineer understand the user comes, in part, from liberal arts. Even the engineer would tell you that a broad education, that focuses on the arts as well as the sciences, will lead you to be a better engineer. The notes his article about how Americans have always done poorly on international standardized tests but have still led the world in innovation is interesting. Another example of how testing does not reveal all. I, brace yourself, got a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and went on to obtain a Master's in Social Work. In the course of those programs and the broad high school education I received (in public school) taught me to think critically, write effectively, and see the world in a larger sense. I've also been financially successful. The world needs all kinds of thinkers and STEM captures part of that but not all.

RealLurker
RealLurker

I have no problem with liberal arts programs.  If you think you might want a career in politics, a history degree would be a good idea.  However, I do have a problem with high school graduates who apply for what they believe to be an easy college track in an attempt to avoid real life.


Liberal arts programs are necessary and they should exist.  Students who go through them should do so with a plan for what they want to gain from the education.