Liberal Arts vs. STEM: The Right Degrees, The Wrong Debate
By Sergei Klebnikov
In the shifting landscape of higher education today, critical questions continue to be raised about the value of a liberal arts education. There is a constant drumbeat claiming that STEM subjects –science, technology, engineering and math – are far more valuable in today’s digital economy and culture than a traditional liberal arts major such as philosophy or history.
“There has been an increase in awareness simply because that is where the jobs are at today and where we foresee them to be in the future,” says Vince Bertram, president and CEO of non-profit Project Lead the Way, a leading provider of K-12 STEM programs that delivers to over 6,500 schools across the nation.
Many public officials have recently fueled the debate by publicly questioning the value of degrees in traditional liberal arts subjects. President Barack Obama famously called into question the usefulness of an art history degree in January before later apologizing. Several Republican governors, including those in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, have also spoken out against the liberal arts. Also among those who have adopted this stance are North Carolina Gov. Patrick McCrory, former presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
For decades the liberal arts and sciences lived harmoniously. They went about their business, for the most part, largely in their own labs and lecture halls. And while much of the recent conversation pitting STEM against the liberal arts has arisen out of this current media interest, says Eugene Tobin, senior program officer at the Mellon Foundation, has one truly overshadowed the other?
A False Dichotomy?
“The emerging and new emphasis on science and engineering is valid, but you still need liberal arts thinkers applied in other fields,” said Alison Byerly, president of Lafayette College, an elite liberal arts school in suburban Pennsylvania. She described the debate as a “false dichotomy.”
“One needs to understand that in many instances this is a false choice between the two,” John McCardell Jr., vice chancellor of Tennessee’s Sewanee University of the South, similarly argues. English lit, economics and international studies are among the Tennessee’s school most popular majors.“But this is not the first time that the liberal arts have been under siege,” he says, pointing to the historical examples of the Land Grant Act of 1862 and the GI Bill of 1944.
Despite challenges, “teaching liberal arts has been the central focus of higher education for centuries, and indeed, has formed the underlying basis of advancement in science, technology, engineering and math,” says Rev. James Maher, president of Niagara University, a small Catholic university in Upstate New York.
But business as usual often looks archaic. The liberal arts “need to be updated for the 21st century,” says Rebecca Chopp, chancellor of the University of Denver and former president of Swarthmore College.
Many leaders of institutions today suggest that the liberal arts are most effective when encompassing STEM fields. “Seeing STEM as threatening to the liberal arts is false; they are two important forms of education that complement each other,” Byerly said. She described that many liberal arts schools are beginning to reform their curriculums to keep them relevant – and that this is particularly true at Lafayette, where engineering is implemented as part of its curriculum.
“Overall, liberal arts colleges must do a better job of making their case and looking for natural opportunities to collaborate with STEM schools,” says Nancy Gray, president of Hollins University, a tiny all-women’s college in Roanoke, VA.
Clark University is thinking about how to augment a traditional liberal arts education. According to the Worchester, MA-based college’s Associate Provost Nancy Budwig, STEM majors are very much in demand these days, as the university has seen over a 10% increase in enrollment in these fields.
However, she insisted, this does not mean that it has taken interest away from traditional humanities subjects.
Indeed, this theme of integration seems to be a trend among many of the leading liberal arts institutions. Leaders of Davidson, Wellesley, Sewanee and Mt. Holyoke all similarly reported that placing emphasis on STEM fields as an integral part of their liberal arts curriculums.
While many liberal arts schools are successfully integrating their curriculums, the reverse is occurring with traditionally STEM-focused universities who are trying to “infuse the liberal arts model into their institutions,” according to Budwig.
At the Rochester Institute of Technology, for example, a large majority of students obtain degrees in engineering or computing, but they must also complete a general education curriculum which delivers technology-infused liberal arts degrees. A recent Teagle Foundation grant will allow the school to “integrate liberal arts content more intentionally into our engineering curriculum,” says James Winebrake, dean of RIT’s College of Liberal Arts. The school has two new degrees that are exemplary of both STEM and the liberal arts – Human-Centered Computing and Digital Humanities.
Schools have also found success in working together, both with other small liberal arts institutions and with larger, research-oriented universities. “There is genuine interest in facilitating partnerships across research universities, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges,” says Tobin.
Education leaders around the country are increasingly coming together to discuss issues facing higher education today. In 2012, Swarthmore and Lafayette co-hosted a national conference to do just that, and last year, in conjunction with Byerly’s inauguration, various presidents from liberal arts colleges returned to continue the discussion and contemplate new models for liberal education.
“It is important to present a united front in talking about what we offer at institutions like ours,” Byerly says about the event, which featured speakers from Middlebury College, Sewanee, Lafayette College and Barnard College.
Ultimately, the debate between the liberal arts and STEM isn’t as simple as black and white. There is much for schools to accomplish through collaboration, which allows for shared resources, academic programs and innovative ideas. The most important steps forward have been the innovations that schools have made to their curriculums, often through collaboration with other colleges.
“This debate will help all types of institutions start talking about topics that have either been taboo or avoided all together,” says Stephanie Freeman, program director for the Arts and Humanities at North Carolina Central University, a public and historically black university in Durham. With the debate now at center stage, “some of the brightest minds in both fields can have open and honest discussions.”
This article was written by Sergei Klebnikov from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.