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The Case for Liberal Studies in the Wake of a STEM Shortage

In the wake of a undergraduate shortage in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), degrees in the liberal arts and humanities have come under fire, often deemed frivolous and unsuitable for a competitive and technologically inclined U.S. job market.

Shortages in technical industries throughout the country have sparked action in Congress, where many conservative states have opted to reduce funding to the arts and sciences, favoring those who produce more STEM graduates.

The liberal arts pushback has once again sparked a debate regarding the true purpose of higher education. Does higher education exist solely to fill vocational gaps in the workforce? Or is the purpose of higher education to stimulate students to think broadly about complex issues and apply that knowledge to any given situation they come across professionally?

This divide is where many lawmakers and educators seem to disagree.

Earlier this year, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin told reporters that he wanted to reallocate the state’s higher education funds, essentially giving more funding to schools that produced more STEM graduates, and less to those that produced higher numbers of humanities and liberal arts graduates.

The liberal arts pushback has once again sparked a debate regarding the true purpose of higher education.

“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors.” He later added, “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.”

Contrasting viewpoints express that the value in education isn’t to fill vocational shortages whatsoever, and having an in-demand degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee job placement.

In an interview published on the online educational resource, EvoLLLution, Boston University professor Jay Halfond voices his perspective on the issue, writing, “In my view, it is dangerous and even corrupting to proceed down a path that shows that higher education ensures lucrative jobs soon after graduation. But we need to do a far better job demonstrating the relevance of a broad, general education, while linking what we teach to what is critical in the professional world.”

Rosemary G. Feal, director of the Modern Language Association of America, additionally notes that lawmakers are more inclined to decrease funding because “[they] themselves have not experienced first-hand the value of studying the humanities.”

In a world that is increasingly becoming more globalized, it’s clear that liberal arts training is applicable and important in every profession. There are a number of complex issues, both local and abroad, that will require more than just expertise in technical fields.

Education that is rooted in a liberal arts philosophy teaches students a number of marketable skills, including communication, creative expression, and critical thinking, all of which are in high demand for any given career path. When liberal arts is combined with technical training, the results are even more lucrative.

“The objective of public universities should not be to produce predetermined numbers of particular types of majors but, rather, to focus on how to produce individuals who are capable of learning anything over the course of their lifetimes,” Arizona State University President Michael Crow wrote in an opinion piece featured on Slate. “Every college student should acquire thorough literacy in science and technology as well as the humanities and social sciences.”

Ultimately, conservative lawmakers need to understand that earning a degree in the humanities is not without merit. While it’s easy for many of these lawmakers to see how scientists and doctors save lives on a day-to-day basis, these same lawmakers fail to see how doctors rely on language interpreters to access medical terminology; how businesses rely on cultural experts to successfully open businesses in new countries; or how political progress is made through thorough historical, social, and cultural understanding.  

In years to come, the issues facing our country will only continue to become more complex, requiring a skill set of learners and professionals who are trained in the humanities and liberal arts.

Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm / shutterstock.com