The Future of Quality Education Lies in the Past:

How liberal arts education provides a way forward for critical thinking

Education Policy Brief #89 | By: Rudolph Lurz | February 22, 2024

Featured Photo taken from: www.manavrachna.edu.in

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The early years of the third millennium were laser-focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. Under George W. Bush, the Spellings Commission reported how far the U.S. was falling behind in STEM fields. It recommended ways to close the gap, such as improving recruitment and retention of women in STEM. President Barack Obama called for 100,000 new math and science teachers and established a federal committee to focus on STEM issues. In 2009, Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland established a commission on STEM education and created a plan to boost the number of STEM graduates from Maryland universities by 40%. As Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie established a fellowship program to attract new STEM teachers to New Jersey. The message from U.S. policy actors was clear. The country was falling behind economic rivals in STEM education, and measures were needed to improve American performance in these subjects.

Promotion of STEM education had a de facto effect of putting less emphasis on liberal arts subjects. STEM projects, as a result of these directives from state and federal policy actors, received priority over liberal arts projects in funding from colleges, state governments, and private foundations. However, direct antagonism against the liberal arts was rare. The liberal arts were being ignored, but at least they were not being attacked.

That changed early in the 2010s. The tone from policy actors became much more bellicose against liberal arts subjects. Florida was the epicenter of this antagonistic approach. In 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott noted,  “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

Proponents of STEM borrowed rhetoric from the Cold War-era Space Race. If the U.S. was falling behind in STEM, it was not only an education or economic issue; it was a national security issue. This approach created a zero-sum game between STEM and liberal arts disciplines. STEM had to be pushed ahead of the liberal arts to protect the country’s future, and directing any funding to the liberal arts was not only wasteful, it created vulnerabilities that could not be tolerated. In this inhospitable environment, dozens of liberal arts departments at colleges across the country were shut down or endured major budget cuts.

Over a decade after Rick Scott’s remarks, it appears that the focus on STEM education has paid dividends. Americans received 412,100 bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields in 2010. In 2018, that number was 669,600, an increase of 62%. In that same time period, degree growth in all other subjects was approximately 20%. In 2010, 52,900 professional or doctoral STEM degrees were earned by Americans. In 2018, that figure was 72,000, an increase of 36%. Women make up a majority of students at American medical schools, passing the 50% mark for the first time in 2017. President Obama’s foundation celebrated reaching his goal of 100,000 new STEM teachers in November, 2021.

These achievements in STEM did not come without a cost. Misinformation is rampant in this Information Age society. 16% of Americans believe that there is some truth to the QAnon conspiracy theory. The far-right movement reached its head when thousands of rioters stormed and desecrated the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Only 15% of American 8th graders scored proficient or above in history, and only 24% in civics. AI usage is rampant at U.S. high schools and universities.

The country has improved its standing in STEM education. However, neglecting liberal arts disciplines caused a detrimental impact on critical thinking skills and basic civics knowledge.

What good is proficiency in STEM if young Americans cannot tell the difference between conspiracy theories and valid evidence? How can STEM improve American society if young Americans cannot participate in basic elements of the American Republic?

Analysis

There is a common joke I hear in higher education policy circles. Focusing on theater and the fine arts without the liberal arts is how you get Batman villains. Focusing on STEM without the liberal arts is how you get Spiderman villains.

In recent education policy, there has been a movement toward STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS, and Mathematics) instead of STEM alone to foster innovation and technological proficiency. Going back to that old adage, if the United States does not combine a STEM approach with liberal arts instruction, we are heading for a society filled with both Batman and Spiderman villains.

I did my dissertation research on STEM and liberal arts policy in Florida. My research showed that it was unproductive and unnecessary to denigrate liberal arts disciplines to promote STEM projects. I also suggested that economic impact from state investment in higher education was not linear. Cold War, zero-sum rhetoric does not fit STEM education policy initiatives. STEM education is not a race to the moon with geopolitical implications. In reality, it is more like a gym. Many different approaches are possible to achieve success and growth. Policy actors should embrace the unpredictable nature of economic impact through education, and work on producing opportunistic communicators. These are folks who can recognize opportunities in the 21st century economy and communicate them effectively to varied groups of stakeholders.

There’s no need to beat up on psychology and anthropology to promote STEM subjects. It is not an either/or, zero-sum, Cold War fight. A recent report estimated that a majority of 2030’s jobs do not exist yet. Education institutions should not be job training centers for the jobs of the present. They should be incubators for molding minds capable of producing innovation in a rapidly-changing world.

Those are the types of skills taught in the liberal arts.

We’ve had this fight before. Colleges were told in the early 19th century that the liberal arts model was antiquated and should be replaced by one more suitable for the business needs of the time. The faculty of Yale College answered these critics with the Yale Report of 1828, which defended the traditional liberal arts curriculum. The authors state,

“From different quarters we have heard the suggestion that our colleges must be new-modeled; that they are not adapted to the spirit and wants of the age; that they will soon be deserted, unless they are better accommodated to the business character of the nation. At this point we have an important bearing upon the question immediately before the committee, we would ask their indulgence, while we attempt to explain, at some length, the nature and object of the present plan of education. The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture are the discipline and furniture of the mind; expanding its powers and storing it with knowledge” [emphasis authors’].

In a past article, I opined that such “furniture” also had a place in 21st century education. I discussed how disparate major/minor combinations, such as STEM or business majors with liberal or fine arts minors, were the best pathways to success both in the job market as well as elite graduate programs. Music and English majors are statistically more likely to be accepted into medical schools than biology or chemistry majors. The market demands doctors who can communicate and think creatively. It also demands citizens who can do the same.

The liberal arts today are in a better position than they were in 1828 or when Rick Scott ripped into anthropology in 2011. Policy actors on both sides of the aisle recognize that civic education and critical thinking are important. That is a good thing.

It is my firm belief that the true study of the liberal arts provides the answer to America’s education needs. Liberal arts disciplines seek out hard topics. The world itself is hard and uncomfortable. The place to learn how to approach spaces of contestation with civility and rationality is not the boardroom as a 30-year-old, but rather the classroom as a 13-year-old. It is ironic to me that the political party that claims to support freedom and liberty is so dead-set on controlling every aspect of education. The conservative policy actors who call progressives “snowflakes” are such delicate flowers that they refuse to allow discussions on contentious topics and seek to remove thousands of books from school libraries that even mention things like racism, slavery, or LGBTQ+ issues.

2030 will require a population of students who know how to think. It is our sovereign duty to give them that power. We must use the liberal arts strategies of the past to prepare students for the challenges ahead. If we fail, authoritarian policy actors will use the propaganda methods of the past to lead America’s future adults to a place that is not a functioning republic.

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