A Case for the Liberal Arts
Jun. 14, 2010 — On May 24, President Obama delivered the commencement address at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. In his remarks, he noted that “the burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone” and emphasized the part we must all play in securing the future of the nation.
“We must educate our children to compete in an age where knowledge is capital, and the marketplace is global,” he said. “We have to pursue science and research that unlocks wonders as unforeseen to us today as the microchip and the surface of the moon were a century ago. Simply put, American innovation must be the foundation of American power – because at no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy.”
A multitude of studies have shown that the US is lagging in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and warned of a resulting decline in the nation’s prosperity. Chief among these, perhaps, is a 2007 report by the National Academy of Sciences, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” The authors of this study were charged with identifying the myriad causes of America’s stagnation and possible decline in STEM, and recommending means by which policymakers might seek to “enhance the science and technology enterprise” in the US. And this they did, in a weighty 592-page tome.
The Bush and Obama administrations both have acted upon the recommendations, as have a host of state governments and private organizations, launching a number of initiatives designed to stimulate growth and foster interest in STEM. Many of these have focused on education, on bolstering science and math programs in K-12, for example. Such efforts are clearly needed, as students in the US have ranked shockingly low among students from other developed nations in science and math literacy.
But ours is not just a knowledge economy; it is an innovation economy, requiring a great deal more than improved math and science skills. To fully prepare the workforce of tomorrow, we need also encourage another sort of learning: that to be had in a liberal arts environment.
Move Over, Left Brain
Liberal arts education has taken a bit of a drubbing in recent years. Once viewed as the hallmark of the enlightened individual, the well-equipped citizen of the world, it is now often dismissed as inessential and impractical – especially in today’s economic climate, where panoptic intellectual pursuits generally take a back seat to career training opportunities. And the humanities, the academic disciplines that form the bedrock of the liberal arts curriculum, have suffered a similar fate. I’ve heard asked, more than once: Do we really need another reading of The Macbeth? And does anyone actually care about the symbolism in The Glass Menagerie?
Some areas of study have even been tagged as dangerous. On May 13, 2010, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2281, which bans courses or classes designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group, that “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as individuals” and/or “promote resentment toward [another] race or class of people.” This bill is widely construed as a smackdown of ethnic studies programs – particularly Latino Studies – which opponents will argue foment unrest among historically underrepresented communities in the US.
Many of these criticisms miss the mark, though. The humanities are never just about rote memorization, “repeat after me.” In many of these fields, interpretations and understandings of the subject are often as important – and as illuminating – as the subject itself. Students of history, literature and philosophy among other disciplines are encouraged, usually required, to develop and defend original theses, to show creativity and a healthy dollop of critical thinking skills.
In a Forbes piece published last summer, Mark Mills and Julio Ottino – a physicist and an engineer, respectively – explain how STEM students could benefit from exposure to liberal arts and the humanities. Science and engineering encourage left-brain thinking, they remind us: logical, rational, analytical, pattern-seeking, solution-solving, sorting, organizing. The humanities, on the other hand, stimulate right-brain activity: creativity, artistry, intuition, symbology, fantasy and emotions.
“What’s the problem?” they ask. “To put it simplistically, if unkindly, we are producing too many engineering PhD’s that think with half a brain. Innovation requires the whole brain. Our educational infrastructure is radically biased toward half-brain outcomes.”
As we burrow deeper into the 21st century, we are going to face challenges the likes of which we can barely apprehend today; never mind the solutions. If we are to address these challenges, as a community and as a nation, we must do more than build a better mousetrap. We have to come up with whole new ways to conceptualize the problem, to approach it from all different angles using the sum total of resources at our disposal. To achieve this, we need not just a well-educated workforce, but a broadly educated one. Only then can we truly ensure the prosperity of the country.
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