Making the Case for More Than Just STEM

Annette Gordon-Reed

One of the most important issues that educators in institutions of higher learning must face is skepticism about the efficacy of liberal arts education in an era that seems to be pushing what educators call STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — as the answer to everything. This is not just happening in the United States, of course. Calls to cut support for students who want to study literature, history or other so-called soft disciplines are also made in Europe and Asia.

But on our own shores, just recently, the governor of Connecticut used his line item veto power to cut support for the humanities in the state. While not directly aimed at higher education, this creates a climate in which people who want to study the humanities are told that their interests are worthless. We seem to be rejecting the idea that it is essential for the good health of any society to have people who are broadly educated, who learn to investigate, analyze and present their findings in a logical and clear fashion — even without the aid of numbers or code.

I was a member of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, put together by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The report we produced, The Heart of the Matter, discussed this issue in depth, outlining three goals that America’s educational institutions should advance:

Educating Americans in the knowledge, skills and understanding that they need to thrive in a 21st century democracy; fostering a society that is innovative, competitive and strong; and equipping the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

The commission took the position — and I agree wholeheartedly — that “these goals cannot be achieved by science alone.”

No doubt we have to improve our schoolchildren’s performance in math and science; we need more homegrown engineers of varying types. But not everyone wants to be an engineer, or can be. And, as leaders in science and the tech industry have acknowledged over the years, innovation is spurred by people who are creative in different ways. The gathering of ideas from seemingly disparate fields often brings new ways to think about problems and allows creativity to flourish.

There must be a way to fashion K-through-12 educational systems to produce students who are sufficiently literate and numerate when they arrive at college to be able to take advantage of all that higher education has to offer. This suggests that there should be greater cooperation between K-through-12 schools and our institutions of higher learning.

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