Luis Martínez-Fernández

We need more engineers and scientists. That has become the mantra of promoters of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in education. There is nothing wrong with such a rallying cry, except that investment in STEM education usually comes at the expense of HAS (humanities, arts, and social sciences).

There is no arguing that inadequate science and mathematics education threatens the economic competitiveness of the United States.

It is no less true, however, that the neglect and systematic defunding of education in fields such as history, sociology and art history can have even more damaging repercussions. Damages include the creation of an uninformed citizenry and a concomitant erosion of democracy, and of a workforce unable to understand, communicate, and collaborate with people of different cultures in an increasingly diverse America and globalized world.

This, too, threatens America’s economic competitiveness.

The investment in science and technology, the desire for higher mathematical proficiency among school children, and implementation of programs to increase the number of graduating engineers are important goals but they are not a panacea.

Botanists and geneticists have succeeded at developing pest-resistant, high-yielding food crops but they have not been able to eradicate famine — world hunger is actually on the rise.

The so-called defense industry has created futuristic weaponry that can virtually guarantee victory in the battlefields, but its scientists cannot guarantee the preservation of peace once the smoke and stench of war have dissipated.

And likewise, modern medicine and biotechnology have prolonged people’s lives but cannot assure that those who live longer lead fuller and spiritually richer lives.

No! Scientists and their formulas and machines cannot solve the world’s problems!

We also need the knowledge of social and political scientists to help us figure out how to distribute those high-yielding crops in war-torn Africa.

We need the wisdom of historians to win the peace after winning the war or to prevent wars altogether.

And we need poets, painters, musicians, ballet dancers and clergy to nurture the spirit of those who now lead longer and healthier lives.

STEM without flowers is just a bare stem.

Indeed, we need more humanists and social scientists as canaries in the mines, to warn us about looming dangers of an increasingly technocratic, market-driven and authoritarian system.

And we may soon need them to play the role that a few thousand Irish monks played during the Middle Ages, helping to preserve the knowledge and artistic sensitivities of classical Greece and Rome in the face of barbarism.

The systematic neglect of HAS is far more complex than a simple transfer of education funds during tough economic times from those fields to STEM.

It is partially the result of the growing dominance of corporations which, on the one hand, demand highly-trained scientists, managers and technicians, and on the other, benefit from the existence of a vast pool of workers and consumers educated only to the point of basic functionality. Trends in our education system respond to such corporate demands.

Public school education, particularly in poor districts, has suffered from marginalization of the social sciences and the elimination of arts programs.

In many states, Florida among them, governments are neglecting, if not willingly dismantling, humanities and social science programs while expanding STEM fields.

Public schools in affluent districts, exclusive private schools and elite private colleges, while not immune to the increasing dominance of STEM, have successfully preserved holistic curricula with adequate support for the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

These disparities between public and private institutions point to a dreadful scenario. One in which those who can afford it will enjoy the luxury of a well-rounded quality education, while those who cannot, will be limited to increasingly narrow vocational and technical opportunities.

(Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted as an opinion piece in The Miami Herald.)

3 Responses to “STEM Promotes Science Instruction at the Expense of Humanities”

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  2. Kelli Barr says:

    I’m intrigued by your mention of Florida as one of these places where corporate interests are providing the ideological framework in which public education is being ‘economized’. Governor Scott’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform recently issued a number of recommendations for the governor to consider in the course of instituting state education reform policies, one of which is charging differential tuition depending upon whether or not a major has high market demand – that is, how large the pool of jobs is for persons in that particular degree field. Inside Higher Education has a story about it, available here: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/11/26/u-florida-history-professors-fight-differential-tuition#ixzz2DY3VYDIe.

    It’s an interesting read, and I mention it in response to your post because I think there is a need to question the assumption that “There is no arguing that inadequate science and mathematics education threatens the economic competitiveness of the United States.” Part of the reason I say that is because this is the same kind of assumption being made by people who argue, for example, that different majors should be priced differently based on whether or not they have any predetermined value to the economy, where that value is measured in terms of the number of jobs currently available for that field.

    There is some evidence to suggest that STEM education in this country is inadequate with respect to other developed nations, in terms of our educational ranking among those nations. But the US also falls short of excellence for reading, writing, and language skills. Why are STEM skills more important and more deserving of focus in terms of our fiscal obligations? In other words, where is the evidence that our economic competitiveness is dependent upon excelling in STEM education ONLY?

    The problem is not just that this ‘mantra’ of the need for more STEM education and R&D investment is forming the substance of the ideology against which HASS educators and advocates find that they must defend themselves. I think, rather, that the problem is this: assuming that more STEM education will automatically increase our economic competitiveness is repeated as a rhetorical ploy that pulls at pervading cultural prejudices and apparent values. It is not filled with actual content. Those who claim that STEM education is inadequate draw upon international studies in education among developed nations. They do not, however, draw upon any evidence that the improved economic competitiveness in this country is directly linked to improvements in STEM education.

    On the contrary, the value of strongly inculcated critical thinking skills has been the subject of numerous studies and forms the content of much anecdotal evidence regarding, for example, whether top-performing companies prefer upper-level managers with MBAs or with a more liberal education (HINT: the evidence, though largely anecdotal, shows that they prefer the latter – Damon Horowitz, a director of Engineering at Google, holds a PhD in Philosophy).

    Take the evidence detailed in the graphic available here: http://pleasandexcuses.com/2012/09/06/philosophy-major/

    It shows the top average GRE scores by intended major. In verbal sections, the top five scorers are 1. Philosophy majors, 2. English, 3. Political Sciences, 4. Physics, and 5. Economics. That’s two humanities fields in the top five, two social science fields, and one science field. In the quantitative sections, the top five, respectively, are Physics, Economics, Computer Science, Chemistry, and Philosophy. For analytical writing, it’s Philosophy at #1, followed by English, Political Science, Physics, and Psychology.

    These are the three broad categories of skills – verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing – that have been deemed necessary to succeed both as an educated employee and as an educated person. That the science are, in two of those categories, trailing behind the humanities and social sciences is evidence, to my mind, that there are skills conferred on the student through studying that particular field that are essential to a successful life – skills such as sustaining a focused and coherent discussion; creatively analyzing, approaching, and solving problems; or applying particular knowledge to appropriate scenarios in order to adapt to changing conditions.

    Additionally, a University of California study demonstrates that for UCLA, the humanities generate surplus revenue for the institution, whereas their more costly and institutionally demanding counterparts in the physical and information sciences do not. Further, at the University of Washington, the humanities and some social sciences units are the only ones operating in the black, compared to the net loss of the engineering and agricultural sciences departments (sources available here: http://www.today.ucla.edu/portal/ut/bottom-line-shows-humanities-really-155771.aspx). While I think it may be a leap to say that HASS disciplines are subsidizing STEM ones – because who knows how funds are distributed within universities? Only those who are on university budget councils – it is no lie that they cost universities and colleges less money and, therefore, are the ones that actually contribute to the economic viability of those institutions. And those institutions are a critical factor in the country’s economic competitiveness.

    So, I agree with and appreciate your empassioned articulation that “Scientists and their formulas and machines cannot solve the world’s problems!” Scientific knowledge and quantitative or technological skills are an integral part of addressing those problems, of course – one of which is US economic competitiveness (though, with respect to problems you’ve mentioned, like the inequities in global food distribution, the “problem” of US competitiveness is a provincial and superficial one). The assertion that more training in STEM fields will produce a workforce that contributes more, or more effectively, to the US’s economic competitiveness is based less on evidence and much more on corporate-driven ideologies concerning what kind of workforce is conducive to the maintenance and expansion of corporate power.

    In terms of evidence as to this argument, Governor Scott’s approach to education reform is not only an example of those ideologies at work, but is also indicative of their rhetorical effectiveness in framing the debate as one of the economic viability of the sciences and engineering VERSUS that of the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

    The debate is, rather, about 1) the degree to which economic competitiveness ought to be the measure of what constitutes being well-educated; and 2) whether the knowledge requisite for contributing to economic competitiveness will actually make us better citizens and happier people, and whether it is the right kind, or only kind, for addressing pressing global social, political, cultural, and economic situations.

    I think those in arts, humanities, and social science fields will benefit from challenging the very framing of the debate as one of economic viability and competitiveness. It is demonstrably NOT cost-effective to investing STEM education at the expense of HASS, because it makes institutions of higher education less economically viable. HASS disciplines have a higher return on investment. Additionally, there has been no evidence presented by Governor Scott and others to suggest that a more scientifically and technically trained citizenry actually boosts national competitiveness, especially if we include as integral to competitiveness factors such as the health of our democracy, the general cultural richness of our society, the level of political and community engagement of our citizenry, how satisfied people are with their occupations or opportunities in life, the scope and availability of opportunities for social mobility, access to excellent and affordable education, the frequency with which particular populations experience inequality along a number of fronts, among others.

    In sum, the notion that economics is the only thing that contributes to the US’s global standing in comparison with other nations is a grossly and dogmatically stilted conception of “competitiveness.” Historically, it is the above factors in addition to our basic economic output that catapulted this country into the position of a global superpower – a position that Governor Scott and STEM advocates are eager to retain.

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