In my last post, I made the case for the long-term value of a liberal arts education as the best tool to prepare students for an uncertain world of work.
In an ideal world – or at least my ideal world – all students would receive an undergraduate education steeped in the humanities, social sciences, and language learning, while also studying the core sciences. Students pursuing careers in business, engineering, medicine, architecture, and other professional fields would then progress to graduate study or certification in their chosen areas.
The reality is not so rosy. Around the world, STEM education has benefited from an increase in funding and attention. However, an unchecked focus on STEM growth can lead to the narrowing of educational outcomes, especially those linked to critical thinking, communication skills, and the learning habits associated with a flexible workforce. Several countries in the MENA region have invested in and promoted STEM education so enthusiastically that nearly 70 percent of their students now study technical fields.
Let me be clear: a focus on scientific and technical fields does not necessarily yield a poor education. Numerous institutions of higher education provide world-class education in these fields, including my own. But a student who receives instruction purely in science, math, and technology receives, at best, an incomplete education.
Many colleges and universities attempt to round out their scientific and technical degree programs by establishing core areas of study to expand the breadth of students’ academic experience. While an admirable first step, these programs frequently do not demand enough liberal arts coursework to significantly impact a student’s education. Furthermore, core requirements outside a student’s field of study are seldom valued as important experiences, but rather as inconsequential errands, diverting focus from the path to “real” STEM learning.
In many of these cases, especially in areas where higher education reforms have been slow to materialize, lecture format is the only means of instruction and student memorization is the primary learning objective. You can look forward to more of my thoughts on teacher and faculty development in future posts, but it’s clear that critical thinking and other invaluable learning outcomes suffer when both the scope and quality of education are limited.
My solution to this problem is what I would call STEM + Liberal Arts, an education that unites the foundations of STEM learning with a curriculum in the humanities, social sciences, and languages. There is a belief, which is only partially accurate, that studying a STEM discipline provides the surest path to post-graduation employment. Yes, jobs in technical fields are available, but Fortune 500 CEOs and other leaders in the marketplace have expressed a preference for workers who have studied the liberal arts. They know from experience that a liberal education is the foundation for building a solid business enterprise. Why? Because it is by studying the liberal arts that students learn innovation, creativity, planning, and critical thinking. STEM Plus, then, takes the best of a liberal education, where the foundations of learning and knowledge emerged, and unites this with a technical education.
Continuing to develop our competencies in science and technology is crucial, but knowledge from these fields can only respond to a limited portion of the challenges that the world faces in the years to come. Regardless of scientific advancements, the major social and economic conflicts of our time are rooted in a lack of understanding of the human condition. STEM disciplines, without the intellectual framework provided by a liberal education, cannot tackle the problems of social and religious conflict, cultural misunderstandings, the misuse of political power, and the deepening divide between the developing and developed regions of the world. While science and technology provide tools that begin to address these problems, those tools cannot teach deep cultural tolerance, understanding, or communication. The need to understand human behavior and the human spirit is at the heart of each of the thorniest issues we face as global citizens, and a liberal education is the best option we have for moving towards such understanding.
A model like STEM Plus provides an alternative path forward. Of course, it is not a new approach to educating our students; traditional arts and science degrees provide similar outcomes. However, today’s science and technology disciplines erode traditional degrees, whether by design (constructing programs upon the premise that more STEM is better) or by default (following standards set by accrediting agencies in technical disciplines, which have squeezed out any semblance of the liberal arts). STEM + Liberal Arts seeks to address these structural issues and prepare our students for the twenty-first century and beyond.
Richard R. Flores, Ph.D.
Senior Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Executive Director, UT Global Initiative for Education and Leadership