Monday, March 30, 2015

STEM versus Liberal Education?

In a Washington Post column headlined "Why America's Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous," Fareed Zakaria writes:
This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. 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.” 
There is much to agree with in the case he makes for liberal education, but the way he (and the Post's headline writers) frame it is problematic.  We don't face a tension between science, engineering and mathematics and liberal education; science and mathematics are part of liberal education, and engineering should be too.

Zakaria is right that liberal education is concerned with "critical thinking and creativity."  To be effectual, these require a set of intellectual tools to understand the world around us.  Liberal education as it is practiced does fairly well through the humanities and social sciences of expanding students' capacities to think about the human and social world.  But the social world is shaped by the physical and biological, the mechanical and computational.  And here I worry we aren't doing such a good job - we seem too ready to declare that we're not "math people" (and, it mostly follows from this, not science or engineering people).  Doing so early in a child's academic life means that they will later find many areas closed off to them.  At the college level, we accommodate this with science for non-scientist courses - every college has its "physics for poets" and "rocks for jocks."   Some of them are likely fantastic classes, but there is a worrying asymmetry - we don't seem to feel a need to offer "poetry for physicists" or "social theory for biologists".  To some extent, this reflects what we're given - too many of our incoming students have already "tracked" away from serious studies in math and science (or turned off to them).  But it raises a question of the seriousness of our commitment to science and math as a real part of liberal education.

The importance of science and math in liberal education is not just in knowing "stuff," or "how stuff works" - though I think knowing stuff, and how it works, is often underrated - but in learning other modes of thought which can extend our mental capacities and give us another perspective.

While Zakaria picked up on our current STEM-mania (much of which is misguided, even on its own terms), and his column's headline puts science and liberal arts in a false opposition, his real target - a narrow vocationalism - is a valid one.  Economic insecurity and the wage premium for college graduates have helped entrench the belief that a college degree is some sort of golden ticket. This is a far too circumscribed view: a good education should enhance one's working life (regardless of how remunerative) - but it should also enrich our lives as citizens and people.  That is, it should help us, as Keynes put it, to "live wisely, agreeably and well."  We would be better able to do this if we took science and math education a little more seriously.

Update (3/31): At, Union College's Chad Orzel has a nice response - "science is essentially human" - to Zakaria's piece.

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