🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9cCNiwRkko.
When you read studies like this, which was published last week, how do you feel?
I feel apprehensive.
At universities around the United States, the troubling decline in investment in the classic well-rounded liberal arts education continues unabated. This decline has its roots, no doubt, in a decline in interest for the humanities. A high-profile article in The New Yorker earlier this year documented and lamented the decline of the English major. An editorial counterpoint in The New York Times tried to explain what might be behind that.
American universities continue their massive investment shifts away from the humanities and toward STEM. Politics aside, the 2023 Pew study “finds that, despite recent declines in ratings, scientists and medical scientists continue to be held in high regard compared with other prominent groups in society. Smaller shares of Americans express confidence in business leaders, religious leaders, journalists and elected officials to act in the public’s best interests. As with scientists, most of these groups have seen their ratings decline in recent years.”
Our value system holds scientists in high regard; high schools award varsity letters for robotics teams; universities are hailing STEM über alles; and it’s clear that parents today are as hopeful for their engineering students’ future as they might have been for their medical students’ future a generation ago.
Yet Americans find themselves worried about their country’s competitive edge and feel we aren’t pushing STEM hard enough.
What’s missing? Fareed Zakaria got it right back in 2014. The sciences can’t thrive without a foundation in the humanities, which are simultaneously served by science and are of service to it. My life’s work, founded in rhetorical theory and invested in STEM, was inspired by Aristotle’s opening line of The Rhetoric: “ἡ ῥητορική ἐστιν ἀντίστροφος τῇ διαλεκτικῇ” (“Rhetoric is a counterpart of Dialectic.”) To distill the essence: There is more to philosophical debate than logic. To extend the metaphor: there is much more to life than what is scientifically, mathematically, or logically provable.
I cannot think of a period in history where we have nurtured such an imbalance in our educational values.
What do you think it will take for our American education system to come to terms with this?
If your non-traditional professional path resembles mine in any way whatsoever, I want to hear from you.