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STEM vs. liberal arts
A class at Bronx Community College. Credit: Ryan Brenzier

Is college worth it?

There is a powerful anxiety over this basic premise as higher education faces urgent challenges over access, affordability and degree completion.

In recent years, U.S. colleges and universities have tried to address marketplace issues of real-world utility and competitiveness. They have asked whether we are meeting the nation’s workforce commitments in STEM and non-STEM employment.

I recently had the opportunity to respond to a series of questions about why there is so much debate about the value of the liberal arts vs. STEM. The questions provided the opportunity to clarify some subtle issues and larger themes around this topic.

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There is an urgent need for the arts, humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields to draw upon their respective strengths and synergies.

STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. Meanwhile, the liberal arts have traditionally encompassed the arts and sciences that collectively represent the foundation of a liberal education. The debate is not new. It dates back at least to the Civil War and the passage of the Morrill Act, also known as the Land-Grant College Act of 1862, which was accompanied by calls for scientifically based agriculture and practical application of academic knowledge.

Practically every liberal arts college and college of arts and sciences within a research university expects undergraduates to sample courses across the arts and humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, especially during their first two years of study. They take this path in order to answer the perennial question: What does it means to be an educated person?

Most colleges and universities agree that skills and values of a liberal arts education include: writing and speaking with precision and cogency; quantitative and visual literacy; appreciation of art and creative expression; comparative historical perspective; and understanding relationships between science and public policy.

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Interest in STEM has been fueled by a growing focus on scorecards, metrics, and outcomes, all of which are valuable when considered in their proper context. The National Science Board has published Science and Engineering Indicators that call attention to the decline of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and mathematics since the 1990s — in the face of a general increase in the overall number of B.A.’s conferred. In the physical and geosciences, the numbers of bachelor’s degrees are well below the levels reached in the early 1980s.

In fact, NSB’s data indicates that in the natural sciences and engineering the ratio of bachelor’s degrees to the 24-year-old population was below the ratios for the great majority of developed countries in Europe and Asia.

One of the explanations is that most other nations give students less freedom to study an array of subjects and less freedom to change majors, which is one of the great strengths of our diverse educational system. Other countries have chosen to concentrate their resources much more heavily in science and engineering. This relative early channeling/filtering by field of study is often accompanied by greater reliance outside the U.S. on the use of manpower planning approaches to direct young graduates into fields that are thought to be most important to national well-being.

By emphasizing broad preparation, the U.S. is something of an outlier, though one senses in the recent statements of some governors that they believe their public universities should only support disciplines and degree programs that contribute to economic growth and they mistakenly believe the arts and humanities do not fulfill such objectives.

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This is an unfortunate misreading of what the value of a college education is, as well as an inadequate appreciation of the intrinsic and practical value of such humanistic fields as art, history, philosophy, religion, and literature.

There is an urgent need for the arts, humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields to draw upon their respective strengths and synergies.

Would experiences in the arts and humanities enable STEM graduates to become more effective critical and creative thinkers and problem-solvers? Conversely, would students majoring in the humanities benefit from the integration of STEM ideas, such as design thinking, into their curriculum?

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At the Mellon Foundation, for example, we support innovative ideas that encourage humanists to bring their special questions to bear on data of all kinds, quantitative as well as qualitative.

We believe that the role of the humanities is not only to critique existing theories constructed by scientists, but also to initiate and pursue their own inquiries with data relevant to their work. Similarly, we sense a growing desire on the part of artists, humanists, social scientists and colleagues in STEM fields to pursue interdisciplinary work whose intellectual collaborations demonstrate the vitality of intersecting and crossing disciplinary borders.

Collaboration across disciplines and academic divisions should also lead to cooperation across institutions. This would have a salutary influence on cost control and would inspire more widespread sharing of resources.

Eugene M. Tobin is a senior program officer for higher education and scholarship in the humanities at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a former president of Hamilton College.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about the liberal arts.

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