Editor's Note (The View From Here)

R.I.P. Liberal Arts?

As budgets tighten and lawmakers are hesitant to increase funding for or, in some cases, even continue to fund higher education at existing levels, some voices in the debate are questioning the value of liberal arts education. Our tax dollars, they argue, should be spent on programs that teach skills that will result in well-paying jobs upon graduation. Everyone has heard a story of the student with a master’s degree in Greek poetry or dance history who works as a barista and a dog walker because she can’t get a “real” job.

Or, the argument also runs, we need more people in the trades. We need diesel mechanics, HVAC technicians, construction workers, and welders, not more librarians, lawyers, urban planners, and journalists. Students need to learn something “useful.” Especially if tax dollars are paying for it.

There has been an emphasis for a number of years now on STEM education: curriculum based on educating students in four specific disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. The intent is to build skill sets that will be of value in our increasingly tech-savvy world. Studies have shown that American students have fallen behind their international peers, especially in science and math. We’re not doing so well in reading, either. STEM instruction anticipated narrowing those gaps.

Even while the success of STEM curriculum is debated, STEM is evolving into STEAM—a curriculum that integrates science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. Incorporating, or reincorporating, arts into the STEM framework brings back creativity and practices such as research, modeling, developing explanations. and engaging in critique and evaluation that all have been minimized in STEM.

Mark Zuckerberg was a classic liberal arts student who also happened to be passionately interested in computers. Steve Jobs once observed 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.” Just two examples of wildly successful “tech” guys who each had a firm educational grounding in liberal arts.

We must teach the arts (liberal, fine, creative), alongside 21stcentury tech- and science-based skills. In doing so we will prepare students to not only have the skills to succeed, but also the flexibility of thought and experience to evolve with our changing world.

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of College Planning & Management.

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