Neem: “The STEM rubric undermines the unity between the humanities and sciences.”

Bevin 2

Kentucky governor Matt Bevin

Back in June, we published a post on Kentucky governor Matt Bevin‘s endorsement of a bill allowing the Bible to be taught in the state’s public schools.  I later published a shorter version of this post at Religion News Service.

Governor Bevin is back in the news after his said that the state’s public universities should cut programs that are not “helping to produce” a  “21st century educated workforce.”  Bevin urged university administrators in his state to “find entire parts of your campus…that don’t need to be there.”  He singled out “Interpretive Dance.”  Back in January, he singled out “French Literature.”  Bevin wants to put money and energy into growing engineering and other STEM programs at Kentucky universities. Ironically, according to Inside Higher Ed‘s coverage of Bevin’s remarks, the governor has an East Asian studies degree from Washington and Lee University.

Sadly, the interim president of the University of Louisville, Dr. Greg Postel, seems to agree with the governor. Postel told the Lexington Herald-Leader that his university’s engineering program is growing, making Bevin’s ideas for funding more STEM initiatives a “natural fit” at Louisville.  “Universities have to be aware of where the jobs are,” he told the Herald-Leader, “and that has to advise us as to which programs we choose to grow and put our resources in.”  If I was a humanities or liberal arts faculty member at Louisville I would be up in arms right now.  Postel has no clue about two things:  1) college education is more than job training and 2) liberal arts majors contribute to the economy and do a variety of jobs.

Check out Inside Higher Ed‘s coverage here.  It includes several faculty members who have pushed back.

Western Washington University historian Johann Neem is not mentioned in the Inside Higher Ed article, but back in February he responded to Bevin’s earlier comments on STEM. Neem believes that “science” should not be part of the STEM equation.  As he puts it, “The STEM rubric undermines the unity between the humanities and sciences.”

Here is a taste of his piece at the blog of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education:

In theory, there are two major faculties on American college campuses, those who teach in the liberal arts and sciences, and those who offer professional education in such fields as business, education, engineering, social work, and various health fields. The two types of faculties are not necessarily in opposition, but they have different missions because they are oriented toward different goals.

To faculty in the arts and sciences, undergraduate education is liberal in nature​ — it is about gaining a broad knowledge ​about how the human and natural worlds work, because doing so can inspire students and because it serves a broader public good to have well-educated adults. Ideally, and often, there is no specific vocational outcome to these majors. In fact, to ask a history, English, biology, or geology major, “​What are you going to do with that?” ought to be irrelevant since these are academic disciplines designed for academic purposes. When majors were first established, their goal was not job training but to offer intellectual depth ​and balance or, better put, to enhance a general education. Thus, majors in the arts and sciences exist for their educational purposes with no real or necessary relation to market needs.

Professional faculty, on the other hand, train people for specific jobs. Their success is measured by whether their students gain the knowledge and skills necessary for employment in specific fields. Students who major in engineering, for example, are right to ask their programs, “​What can I do with that?” Moreover, students who choose to major in these fields may not receive the same kind of liberal education as those in the arts and sciences. Instead, they seek a direct line to employment. These fields, in other words, are tied closely to market needs.

The rhetoric of “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) seeks to professionalize science faculty by reorienting their core community of identity. The sciences are not job training but part of liberal education. Math is a humanistic pursuit. Ideally, faculty and students in the sciences and math have different goals, perspectives, and aspirations than those in engineering and technology-related fields. Traditionally, science and math faculty have identified themselves with the broader purposes of the liberal arts, of which they are a part.

The more we use the term STEM​ — in praise, condemnation, or simply as a descriptor​ — the more we divide the arts and sciences faculty from each other. The arts and sciences exist as the educational core of the undergraduate collegiate curriculum. They are tied together conceptually. There is in fact no difference, from the ​perspective of liberal education, in choosing to major in philosophy or chemistry. Faculty in both disciplines, in all the arts and sciences, believe in the value of intellectual pursuit, in fostering curiosity about the world, and in graduating students who have breadth and depth. Yet, increasingly on campuses across the United States, colleges of arts and sciences are dividing into two units, the humanities and social sciences in one, and the sciences and math in another.

Neem concludes:

The STEM rubric undermines the unity between the humanities and sciences. For many policymakers, this is no doubt desirable. Yet, if faculty in the sciences and mathematics are not careful about how they identify themselves, they will be party to the erosion of the ideal of liberal learning, of which they remain an essential part. If faculty in the humanities and social sciences are not careful, they will find themselves marginalized as the sciences abandon liberal education to join forces with market-driven technology and engineering programs. If Americans are not careful, we will soon find that we have fundamentally changed the purposes and goals of collegiate education.

Read Neem’s entire piece here.

Humanities in a “Tech World”

59c16-i_love_humanities_tshirt-p235524076469557183trlf_400Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and Extension Economist at North Carolina State University.  In this piece he explains why the humanities are needed in a “tech world.”

Here is a taste:

 

There’s another reason for the relevance of humanities in our current world. Some thinkers say the application of the next level of technology to human use will require a cultural change, and developers of new technology will have to understand this cultural shift in order to be successful.

Robots and driverless vehicles are good examples. Although it’s fun to think of these tools in abstract, when they become a reality, how will we react? Robots and driverless vehicles mean a shift in control and power from humans to machines that we have never experienced before. How will we react? Will robots and driverless vehicles be commercial successes or financial flops because people couldn’t adapt to them?

Obviously developers and manufacturers want to know, and who better than to guide them than individuals who have studied human culture – that is, those who have studied the humanities.

There have already been studies indicating a new found appreciation of humanities experts in today’s high-tech economy. Many companies have discovered humanities majors make excellent managers and decision-makers.

So in the race between the STEMS and the HUMIES (my short-cut for the humanities), it may be too early for us to decide who will come out on top!

Read the entire piece here.

*Scientific American* Magazine: “Politicians trying to dump humanities education will hobble our economy”

science-vs-humanitiesGlad to see the editors of Scientific American, the oldest continually published magazine in the United States, defend the humanities.  Here is a taste of the editorial “STEM Education is Vital, but Not at the Expense of the Liberal Arts“:

Kentucky governor Matt Bevin wants students majoring in electrical engineering to receive state subsidies for their education but doesn’t want to support those who study subjects such as French literature. Bevin is not alone in trying to nudge higher education toward course work that promotes better future job prospects. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a former presidential candidate, put it bluntly last year by calling for more welders and fewer philosophers.

Promoting science and technology education to the exclusion of the humanities may seem like a good idea, but it is deeply misguided. Scientific American has always been an ardent supporter of teaching STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But studying the interaction of genes or engaging in a graduate-level project to develop software for self-driving cars should not edge out majoring in the classics or art history.

Read the entire piece here.

Drew Gilpin Faust Responds to the Obama College Scorecard

Drew Gilpin Faust

By this point you have already heard about Barack Obama’s College Scorecard.  In a nutshell, Obama wants to evaluate colleges based on how well they train students for the job market.  When combined with his decision to provide federal funding for the so-called STEM disciplines, Obama seems to be operating under the assumption that the primary (and maybe the only) purpose of college is utilitarian, to provide students with a first job, preferably in a technical field.  See my coverage of this whole issue here and here and here and here.

Drew Gilpin Faust, the President of Harvard, disagrees with the POTUS.  She recently responded with a letter to the New York Times.  Here it is:

The focus in federal policy making and rhetoric on earnings data as the indicator of the value of higher education will further the growing perception that a college degree should be simply a ticket to a first job, rather than a passport to a lifetime of citizenship, opportunity, growth and change.

I graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1968, and my first job was working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. My starting salary was low, but I was inspired by the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty to regard public service as an important calling. I went on to graduate school, joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and ultimately became the president of Harvard University. Should Bryn Mawr have been judged based on what I was paid in my first year at HUD?

When I speak with students today, I encourage them to pursue those interests that enable them to make their particular contribution to the world. A graduate working to begin a start-up or one pursuing a career in the creative arts would likely not score high on the proposed federal scale of educational worth. Nor would the nearly 20 percent of our graduates who each year apply to Teach for America and numerous other teacher-residency programs.

Making college more affordable for students and families is a fundamental goal that we in higher education are dedicated to support. When we decide what to measure, we signal what counts. Equating the value of education with the size of a first paycheck badly distorts broader principles and commitments essential to our society and our future.

DREW GILPIN FAUST

President, Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass., Feb. 15, 2013

More on the Humanities and STEM

Last week my post on STEM disciplines and Obama’s State of the Union Address got some attention in the blogosphere.  To follow-up, I want to call your attention to Danielle Allen’s piece in today’s Washington Post.  Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, warns against becoming a “nation of technocrats.”  Here is a taste:

Let’s not forget that you can’t do well in math and engineering if you can’t read proficiently, and that reading is the province of courses in literature, language and writing. Nor can you do well in science and technology if you can’t interpret images and develop effective visualizations — skills that are strengthened by courses in art and art history.

You also can’t excel at citizenship if you can’t read, write or speak well, or understand the complexity of the world and think historically. History helps us understand the features of our worlds that are changeable and that require either reform, because they are damaging, or protection, because they are valuable but vulnerable.

Read the rest here.

HT: James Grossman at AHA Today

The Antihistory Presidency

obama-and-historyThere is a lot to digest from last night’s State of the Union Address.  The pundits will be out in force today talking about all of the new initiatives Obama proposed, particularly the stuff he had to say about immigration and gun control.  And how about 102-year old Desiline Victor? As the grandson of a 102-year voter, Desiline’s story tugged at my heartstrings.

Obama also talked about education last night.  And once again, he celebrated the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Here is a quote from the speech:

Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.  We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math–the skill’s today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

We need young people who are trained in the STEM disciplines.  But we also need our president to get behind the humanities, especially history.

Obama’s statement that STEM disciplines provide skills that “today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future” is only partially true.  Anyone who attended the recent Wake Forest conference “Rethinking Success” (or watched the conference presentation online) knows that companies and employers are just as interested in humanities and liberal arts majors as they are college graduates trained in STEM fields.  In fact, some of them are MORE interested in humanities majors than those trained in traditional STEM disciplines.

Obama’s support for STEM last night also extended to higher education. He called for a new “College Scorecard” that would reward colleges and universities that provide greater access to “the education and training that today’s jobs require.”

Again, I have no problem with colleges training students in STEM disciplines.  I work at a college that does a good job at this kind of training.  But I also teach at a college committed to the humanities and the broader liberal arts–disciplines that teach skills, ways of thinking, and ways of being that are essential to the cultivation of a civil society and a thriving democracy.

Obama’s speech last night–at least the parts dealing with education–sounded eerily similar to the Republican governI do not have the time or the space here to defend the the value of history and humanities.  If you are a regular reader of he Way of Improvement Leads Home you know that I have done this many times before. (In addition to the previous link see my piece at Patheos:  “Education for a Democracy” or take a quick glance at my “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” series)

I will, however, call your attention to the irony of it all.  In his public addresses Obama has effectively used history to make his political points.  Ever since his famous breakout speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention he has been making appeals to the Declaration of Independence.  Last night he appealed, on multiple occasions, to the ideals and values that define America.  He referenced the responsibilities of the Congress to place the nation over partisan interest.  He talked about the meaning of citizenship. He asked Americans to join him in writing the next “great chapter” in national history.

Obama must be aware that Americans cannot respond to these exhortations without knowing something about the past.  How can our children write the next “great chapter” in national history when they have little knowledge of the previous chapters?

Obama’s historic rhetoric soars.  He has appealed to the civic humanism of the founding fathers and their commitment to the common good.  In his Second Inaugural Address he talked about Selma, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall.  But I wonder how many young people knew the meaning of these references.  And I wonder how many will know them in ten years. If his track record of funding history in schools is any indication, I don’t think he cares.

Barack Obama has done virtually nothing to promote a renewed sense of civic identity through the study of history.  Just ask the 2010 Washington-era teacher of the year Kenneth Bernstein.  In a recent piece in The Washington Post he decried the lack of civic education in our schools.  Rather than addressing this issue head-on, Obama has cut funding for the successful Teaching American History program and has defined educational reform entirely in terms of STEM disciplines.

Barack Obama is no friend of history.  If I am looking for an ally on this front I will take George W. Bush any day of the week.

Why We Need More Than Just STEM

Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address was steeped in American history, but when he talked about education he focused entirely on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.  The folks at the American Historical Association have noticed this discrepancy.  Jim Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, pointed it out in a recent blog post.  Today Kenneth Pomeranz, the current AHA president, has also brought it to our attention in a piece at Inside Higher Ed.

When I heard Obama reference Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall last week, I wondered how many Americans knew what he was talking about.  How many future presidents (or their speech writers) will be able to use American history to move the nation to action?

Pomeranz makes a pretty good argument for the usefulness of historical research as a complement to STEM fields.  History underlies public debate and it shows us that many of the ideas that inform our public life are actually quite “new.”  Here is a taste of his piece:

It hardly seems a stretch to think that a world facing our current challenges might benefit from awareness of other ways that people have thought about the relationship of work, citizenship, adult status, “independence” and dignity, or about consumption, economic growth, leisure and the nature of progress. Or to take some narrower examples, consider the implications of learning how relatively recently life insurance went from seeming like a morally dubious gambling on death to a taken-for-granted tool for managing risk. Or that, while (as Thomas Ricks noted in a recent Atlantic) almost no U.S. generals were removed from their commands for poor performance during Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, many were so removed during World War II – suggesting that the recent situation does not represent an inevitable feature of government, much less of hierarchy generally. Historical knowledge of this kind does not provide lessons as straightforward as “deficit spending can work,” but it can add significantly to our understandings of what is possible, for better or worse, and how things may become, or cease to be, unthinkable.
Research that produces these results, both testing earlier certainties and responding to new questions , thus seems a useful, even necessary complement to research in the STEM fields. Fortunately, most historical research is also relatively cheap, but it does not thrive on complete neglect.