Several articles about a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) have been recently published in magazines and newspapers, perhaps the most notable being one by Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post entitled “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous”.
Let me attempt to put this subject into some kind of perspective by asking the simple question-What is the Purpose of a University Education?
A hundred years ago in the UK there were very few universities and they were for the children of the affluent with the goal of turning them into well rounded ladies and gentlemen suitable for taking their place in society. The men often found positions in the church or in the military.
Today the purpose of a university education is quite different. For most of us it enable us to repay our college loans and get a return on investment. It does little good to spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars on a 4-year education only to end up being unemployed or under employed. If a family cannot afford to buy a house, provide the children with a cell phone, a bike, and a computer or take a two week vacation at the beach, major problems will loom on the horizon. It’s all very well to say that money isn’t everything, but without a living wage life will be a challenge, unless you plan on living in a hut on some remote beach and writing poetry. Follow your passion by all means, but do something else to help you pay the bills. I think it was Dorothy Parker who said-“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better”.
My advice to a student today preparing for college is to fast forward four years and imagine yourself sitting at a desk in front of a job- interviewer who asks- “What skills do you have that I would be willing to buy? If your answer is –“I know about the history of film or I am an expert on Elizabethan History”, don’t be surprised if you join the ranks of the unemployed.
So, what about the STEM subjects? Our country became the richest most powerful country in the world mainly because of science and technology and our future depends on further developments in the fields of medicine, computer technology, material science, and other related subjects.
Can you study one of the STEM subjects and also some philosophy, art, history, and music at the same time? No, not unless you are extremely bright and willing to work hard. Remember, when you enter the job market, you are competing against the best from India, Korea, and China and they are good. As Thomas Friedman once said-“Your next doctor will be Indian and your next boss will be Chinese.”
While on this subject, all STEM students should study critical thinking, reason, and logic because these are the basic elements of the scientific method.
So, what’s the answer to the problem of producing graduates in STEM who lack skills in the humanities and liberal arts? Very simple. Students must accept, and even welcome, the fact that learning does not stop at graduation; this is where it really begins. Although I have no proof that STEM graduates would find studying history, art, philosophy, and linguistics to be more enjoyable than liberal art students would find relativity theory and quantum physics interesting, I suspect it’s true.
Finally, should you abandon your passion for a liberal arts degree? Of course not! Just be realistic about your future employment opportunities. What does the future hold for teachers? I don’t really know, but most courses are now available on-line for no charge taught by charismatic professors. Does this portend the end of universities?