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The arts and sciences, or STEM?

by Johann N. Neem, WISCAPE Affiliate | Feb 23, 2016

Johann N. Neem, a WISCAPE affiliate, is ​professor of ​​history at Western Washington University and a ​visiting ​faculty ​fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

A recent, widely-read story in the New York Times, titled “A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding” (Feb. 21, 2016), told the now well-known story of American policy leaders offering incentives to major in the “STEM” fields, while cutting funding or offering disincentives to major in the humanities and social sciences. The most recent round of this ongoing conversation was spurred by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s suggestion that tax dollars should fund "useful" degrees, not French literature.

Lost in this discussion are the broader ways in which the language of STEM has transformed the orientation, practices, and meaning of science and math. In theory, there are two major faculties on American college campuses, those who teach in the liberal arts and sciences, and those who offer professional education in such fields as business, education, engineering, social work, and various health fields. The two types of faculties are not necessarily in opposition, but they have different missions because they are oriented toward different goals.

To faculty in the arts and sciences, undergraduate education is liberal in nature​ -- it is about gaining a broad knowledge ​about how the human and natural worlds work, because doing so can inspire students and because it serves a broader public good to have well-educated adults. Ideally, and often, there is no specific vocational outcome to these majors. In fact, to ask a history, English, biology, or geology major, “​What are you going to do with that?” ought to be irrelevant since these are academic disciplines designed for academic purposes. When majors were first established, their goal was not job training but to offer intellectual depth ​and balance or, better put, to enhance a general education. Thus, majors in the arts and sciences exist for their educational purposes with no real or necessary relation to market needs.

Professional faculty, on the other hand, train people for specific jobs. Their success is measured by whether their students gain the knowledge and skills necessary for employment in specific fields. Students who major in engineering, for example, are right to ask their programs, “​What can I do with that?” Moreover, students who choose to major in these fields may not receive the same kind of liberal education as those in the arts and sciences. Instead, they seek a direct line to employment. These fields, in other words, are tied closely to market needs.

The rhetoric of “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) seeks to professionalize science faculty by reorienting their core community of identity. The sciences are not job training but part of liberal education. Math is a humanistic pursuit. Ideally, faculty and students in the sciences and math have different goals, perspectives, and aspirations than those in engineering and technology-related fields. Traditionally, science and math faculty have identified themselves with the broader purposes of the liberal arts, of which they are a part.

The more we use the term STEM​ -- in praise, condemnation, or simply as a descriptor​ -- the more we divide the arts and sciences faculty from each other. The arts and sciences exist as the educational core of the undergraduate collegiate curriculum. They are tied together conceptually. There is in fact no difference, from the ​perspective of liberal education, in choosing to major in philosophy or chemistry. Faculty in both disciplines, in all the arts and sciences, believe in the value of intellectual pursuit, in fostering curiosity about the world, and in graduating students who have breadth and depth. Yet, increasingly on campuses across the United States, colleges of arts and sciences are dividing into two units, the humanities and social sciences in one, and the sciences and math in another.

To the extent that faculty in the sciences and math see themselves as sharing a similar mission to engineering and technology, this is a fundamental change in what it means to be a scientist or mathematician. It turns scientists and mathematicians into professional rather than liberal educators. It weakens the idea of liberal education as something that requires and encompasses the humanities and the social and natural sciences, making it easier for commentators to pit the sciences and math against the “liberal arts.” And it seeks to make scientists think of themselves in these terms rather than as part of a larger community of scholars engaged in the pursuit and transmission of knowledge.

The sciences were not always essential to liberal education. For the first half of the 19th century, science was seen as too practical, too worldly to be part of a liberal education. Certainly, some basic courses in “natural philosophy” were part of the collegiate curriculum, but the core remained ancient languages, history, political economy, and ethics. By the late ​19th century, however, the claim that natural science was not a legitimate academic pursuit and that science should not be taught at colleges was no longer tenable.

In fact, by the early 20th century, as Andrew Jewett argues in his recent book, Science, Democracy, and the American University (2012), science had become a key component of the liberal arts. Not only did humanistic disciplines embrace the “scientific” research model, but scientists argued that the scientific approach to knowledge​ -- experimental, constantly changing, innovative​ -- was the best way to train democratic citizens. Democracies needed citizens who could ask questions, test hypotheses, reach deliberate judgments, and then change those judgments if they proved faulty. Science taught these essential critical thinking skills and dispositions. In other words, science joined the liberal arts because scientists and others believed that the sciences offered a vital contribution to liberal education in a democracy.

In more recent decades, however, we have seen the slow erosion of science as part of the liberal arts. If the liberal arts and sciences are non-commercial, we have witnessed the increasing commercialization of scientific research, especially after the Bayh-Dole Act (1980) encouraged colleges and their science faculty to monetize their research. In response to declining public funding, university-based scientific research is increasingly about developing products with market value. Basic research for the public good​ -- or, the research side of the liberal arts and sciences mission​ -- is becoming less important.

This transforms how we imagine the ideal college graduate. If the liberal arts and sciences aspire to develop human beings and citizens, the sciences and math are now seen by policymakers and the public as primarily about developing human capital. Thus, in the George W. Bush administration’s Spellings Report on higher education’s future, colleges exist to generate “intellectual capital” for a “new knowledge-driven economy.” The liberal arts are not even mentioned. College graduates must be profit centers, not insightful human beings and citizens.

STEM therefore is a term that should be used with caution, if not abandoned altogether. Certainly, we should continue to educate engineers and computer scientists. There is also no doubt that we need students who are better prepared in the sciences, for the same reason that we need students to study literature and history. In today’s world, it is vital that undergraduates have a sophisticated knowledge of science and math to be effective citizens. And, as with all majors in the arts and sciences, it is also valuable for students to pursue their own intellectual interests in depth to get a sense of what it means to really understand something and to develop higher-order knowledge and skills. Through one’s major, students are able to see the world with new eyes.

The STEM rubric undermines the unity between the humanities and sciences. For many policymakers, this is no doubt desirable. Yet, if faculty in the sciences and mathematics are not careful about how they identify themselves, they will be party to the erosion of the ideal of liberal learning, of which they remain an essential part. If faculty in the humanities and social sciences are not careful, they will find themselves marginalized as the sciences abandon liberal education to join forces with market-driven technology and engineering programs. If Americans are not careful, we will soon find that we have fundamentally changed the purposes and goals of collegiate education.

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2 comments

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  1. LauraH.
    9-20-2016
    What most people seem to not realize is that the jobs that are predominantly within the STEM area need people with a liberal arts background as well as their STEM background. Only having the knowledge for the specific STEM field will mean that an employee will not be capable of doing the job successfully. They need to be able to think about their field critically, and be able to write about their information they are sharing and to be able to clearly communicate to others. Liberal arts should be just as much a part in the STEM programs as the specific STEM information that is learned in those areas of study. http://laurahaack.weebly.com/blog

  2. Prof
    2-24-2016
    This is a very wise article, re-establishing the distinction between the pure and applied sciences and how the pure sciences are more like the liberal arts than they are like engineering. I only want to add that pitting STEM against everyone else makes it seem as if there is "science" and that everything else is mere subjectivity or ideology with no claim to truth whatever. A person with only a STEM education might think that as well without a strong liberal arts component. This ends up in a philistine society in which there is nothing we can do to reason with those who disagree with us and no basis to choose between one political party or another besides tribalism and subjective preference. 

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