Column: Science Has Its Place, but Don’t Undervalue the Liberal Arts

The United States faces a drastic shortage of college students earning STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees, policymakers say. To these policymakers, the implication is clear: the traditional American broad college education is inadequate to fill technology jobs that will spur the economy.

Leaders in both political parties have called for more STEM graduates. President Barack Obama even highlighted the pitfalls of a broader education when he said, in a speech in January, “I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” he said.

After he later apologized to an art history teacher, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio rebuked the president for apologizing, insisting, “We do need more degrees that lead to jobs.”

And few are more anxious about work after graduation than college students themselves.

But there’s one group whose faith in the value of the humanities remains unshaken: a broad swath of citizens, including college students, parents, professors and others with an interest in education.

In 2012-2013, hundreds of people attended 115 public forums in 41 states to discuss the challenges facing higher education. The forums were organized and conducted by the National Issues Forums Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan network of locally sponsored public forums that gather citizens to discuss issues of public importance.

If the opinions of those who attended are any guide, a considerable number of Americans believe the country would be shortsighted to stake its future solely on math, science and technology. These citizens are reluctant to abandon what they see as a broad education that increases flexibility, innovation and creative thinking and that nurtures job growth in the long term.

In questionnaires completed by many of those attending the forums, only about one in five strongly agreed that “our country’s long-term prosperity heavily depends on educating more students in the fields of science, engineering, and math.” But more than half strongly agreed that “college should be where students learn to develop the ability to think critically by studying a rich curriculum that includes history, art and literature, government, economics and philosophy.”

They may have a point that the policymakers are overlooking.

An article in the Atlantic recently pointed out that the United States has panicked over work force shortages in science and engineering five times since World War II. Each time, the nation’s experts declared the need for more STEM graduates, only to witness painful layoffs and budget cuts in technical and scientific fields afterward.

People attending the forums, in contrast, were instinctively suspicious of attempts to narrow college education. They saw higher education, with all of its expense and problems, as more than a ticket to a job, and far more valuable than serving the corporate or political interests of the moment. Most valued giving young people a chance to explore their interests and have the freedom to dive into subjects — and see where that leads. Many in the forums who had attended college decades before gave powerful testimony about the impact the college experience had on their lives.

Lest you think that the people in the forums are simply detached from pragmatic realism, consider this: Asian countries, whose rigid, standardized, test-based approach to education American policymakers widely admire, are moving toward the liberal arts just as we are doubting their practical use.

University officials from China have visited liberal arts colleges such as Williams to learn how to implement humanities curricula. Yale is helping Singapore establish its first liberal arts college. Many in Asia are coming around to the view that America’s approach to university learning is what makes our country a leader in creativity and innovation.

How ironic that what many discount in America is what other countries say they need.

And that’s what the people in the forums understood. Despite their concerns about its high cost, many citizens see education as having an intrinsic value. They believe that great things happen when a young person is immersed in a diverse population of fellow learners, exposed to new ideas and a wide range of subjects, and encouraged to think, write and wonder at all that is.

When Steve Jobs gave the 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, he promised the listening graduates just three stories. One of them concerned a calligraphy class he took at Reed College. The man who helped bring computer technology to the masses waxed eloquent about that experience: “I learned about serif and san serif typefaces and what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

Ten years later, he designed the first Macintosh computer to have beautiful typography, and that influenced the way the world — through its computers — handled type.

Not bad for a college course that many would argue has little practical application — and one more reason not to discount the humanities.

William V. Muse is president of the National Issues Forums Institute. He is a former president of Auburn University and the University of Akron. Maura Casey, a former editorial writer for The New York Times, is an associate of the Kettering Foundation.