I keep reading that a liberal arts education is a colossal waste of time and money, that all it’ll get you is unemployed. This line of thinking holds that what the world of the 21st century needs is computer programmers and health care professionals. STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) is where it’s at, baby! Shakespeare is out. Coding is in!
Colleges and universities have been placed in the prickly position of defending their humanities and social sciences programs against the battering rams of the STEM people. Don’t say you can’t do anything practical with sociology, literature or philosophy (they tell us). In today’s market, every job requires excellent critical thinking and communication skills. Why, you can do anything with these backgrounds! As in the classical Greek tradition, a broad education steeps students in history and ideas, providing them with a frame of reference for taking on any challenge of modern society. After all, our statesmen, lawyers, teachers and, yes, artists, have to start somewhere.
I’ve been laughing at a humorous-yet-serious video posted by the English Department of our local college, California State University Chico. My favorite line is about halfway through the video, where an English student composes a tweet to #imgonnaliveinabox. Wow, members of the younger generation are afraid that a liberal arts education will doom them to a lifetime of poverty!
Prestigious Stanford University, located in California’s Silicon Valley (and therefore about 150 miles from my home), is known for its computer science and technology programs. Students come from all over the world to study to become engineers. And yet, most of Stanford’s professors don’t teach science, math or engineering. The New York Times reports that 45% of Stanford’s faculty is in the humanities, but only 15% of its students are.
While it must be wonderful for Stanford’s political science or comparative literature students to receive individual attention in small classes, many other colleges are financially unable to keep sparsely-attended liberal arts programs going. So departments of Romance languages, music and art history fall by the wayside.
Some say good riddance to useless studies (what employer wants to hire an anthropology major?) while others bewail the loss of intellectualism in favor of job preparation.
I think about my own college experience, well over a quarter century ago. As a freshman, my heart’s desire was to major in theater arts. Following some wonderful high school experiences both as a thespian and as a student of several teachers who knew how to bring drama alive, I was willing to paint scenery, gather props or do whatever was needed just to soak in the atmosphere of the seniors who surely were headed for Broadway and Hollywood. Let’s just say that my parents vetoed this misguided notion right off the bat. They wanted me to major in political science in preparation for law school. That was all well and good except for one little thing: I had no desire to attend law school. But since my parents were paying for my education, political science it was.
At the start of my sophomore year, I transferred to a larger state university, where I learned that it was possible to major in two disciplines rather than just one. Although I had given up the theater dream, I quickly signed up to double major in English along with political science. One for my parents, the other for me.
I hadn’t really strayed too far from theater arts; all I had done was move from one liberal arts major to others.
But what I never, ever considered was majoring in a STEM area. I am grateful that my parents didn’t insist that I study science or math so that I could land a job upon graduation. They knew that would have been a disaster. And they never suggested that my choice of college major could affect my ability to support myself. Why would they have? Mom may have been a biology major, but Dad was an English major. Both of them earned advanced degrees, went into teaching and eventually became administrators.
Indeed, not everyone is cut out for the STEM disciplines. Even those so inclined may have a tough time making it through introductory science courses if they attended high school in low income areas where science education may have been sparse. I took one math class in my freshman year, failed, and graduated without taking another math or science class again. In the Chico video cited above, one student says “math sucks.” While I was a bit startled to hear that in this day and age, the sentiment is not far off from my own undergraduate attitude.
Then again, I hit college in the mid-1970s, just in time to witness the tail end of the three Ps: Petitions, protests and pot. I wisely stayed away from all of those things. This was partly out of fear, particularly since I knew that my college had nearly been torn apart during the Vietnam War, and particularly after Kent State. But the shadow of the early ‘70s still hung over the campus like a pall of pot smoke in mid-decade. Science and math just didn’t seem all that important.
The start-ups of Silicon Valley were just beginning to heat up during my college days, but this didn’t seem a blip on our radar on the east coast. The hot major was business administration. Accounting, marketing and economics textbooks were everywhere. Arbitrage, anyone? Wall Street, here we come! Everybody say moooooney!
I had nothing but disdain for that stuff. It was like another world that had nothing to do with me whatsoever. In my junior year, my sister joined me at the same institution of higher learning. She was a STEM gal who breezed through calculus but had a hell of a time getting through freshman English. She started out majoring in physics, then changed to biology. Yep, my parents again. Med school.
But my sister did not attend medical school. And when I graduated, rather than attend law school I proceeded to spend six years working in a field in which none of my coworkers had more than a high school diploma. Some took a few classes at the local community college, but most quit before long.
However, it was the early eighties and I saw where things were going. Slowly but surely, manual processes were being computerized. When I started my first job out of college, the clerks still used typewriters. I hadn’t yet heard of Microsoft. IBM and DEC computers were all the rage in the business world. No one had a computer at home. What on earth would you do with it? And Apple? That was a little toy computer that the kids used over at the high school. But Hewlett-Packard peripherals began appearing in our office and I began hearing whispered stories of incredible things going on in places like Sunnyvale, Palo Alto and San José.
I saw that political science and English weren’t going to do it for me. I needed a do-over. I began taking night classes in computer science and business. And yes, I retook that math class I had failed back in freshman year, and this time I earned an A. Another thing that happened is my discovery that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I was the one in our office who figured out how to use this stuff called “software” that the company kept purchasing.
Once my sisters married computer engineers and migrated out to Silicon Valley, I began to understand just how badly I had blundered in my education. Or had I? Maybe I didn’t know anything about math or science. But at night, I discovered that I could learn to write code. And during the day, I was the one who wrote the documentation and the reports, the one who could proofread the technical manuscripts we kept receiving in French and Spanish. I was the one who taught the grammar class. I became a manager. And eventually, I even went to law school after all.
I began to understand that STEM and liberal arts are not diametrically opposed, but in fact go hand in hand. A well-rounded education requires significant exposure to both. Engineering students go into management and end up giving speeches and writing white papers. Liberal arts students end up as technical writers at software companies. Every field needs readers and writers. So yes, if liberal arts majors are to understand the way phenomena such as text messaging and the internet affect society, they do need to know a little about algorithms and graphical user interfaces. By the same token, engineers need to know how to construct a proper sentence in the English language, and how to string together a series of such sentences into coherent paragraphs.
I’ll always be in awe of those who have a deep appreciation of things like Linux shell scripting. But that doesn’t mean that a little bit of Shakespeare, Dickens or T.S. Eliot ever hurt anyone. After all, how will the computer and biomedical people create our future if they know nothing of our past?
Or, as the magicians at Automattic (the company behind WordPress) like to say, “code is poetry.”
Gopnik, Adam, “Why Teach English?” The New Yorker, August 27, 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/why-teach-english.html
Hamman, Kira, “Why STEM Should Care about the Humanities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (The Conversation, April 12, 2013). http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/04/12/why-stem-should-care-about-the-humanities/