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Don’t Defund Humanities: They’re Crucial to the Economy, Too

Posted in Higher Education on September 17, 2013 by


Everyone is talking about the crisis in STEM education — the shortfall of qualified scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians to fill the jobs of the future. The relative lack of STEM graduates in the U.S. is frequently cited as a threat to the country’s global standing.

But lately there has been a growing outcry from the “other side of campus” — humanities and social science departments wondering where their advocates have gone. Some argue that the STEM crisis is overblown – that in fact there are more STEM graduates than jobs. Others just want their fair share of resources. According to a New Republic article from earlier this month, while the “U.S. government spends more than U.S. $3 billion each year on 209 STEM-related initiatives overseen by 13 federal agencies,” the proposed 2014 endowments of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities are $145.5 million respectively.

But a liberal arts education provides excellent training in at least three crucial areas – communications skills, critical thinking skills, and learning about other cultures and ideas. As any nation’s economy increasingly becomes a global knowledge economy, these skills only grow more important. All knowledge economies – the USA among them – want more high-skill workers, of any type.

So then what’s going on here? In an environment that clearly has use for both types of skills, why focus so much more on STEM?

I think the real answer is that communications skills, critical thinking skills, and multicultural proficiency are much less measurable than STEM skills.

Human beings (even very smart ones) tend to be very bad at assessing and considering hidden costs and hidden opportunities, and so over-index towards transparent costs and opportunities. Both on a national basis as well as for individual careers, STEM tends to be associated with much more transparent costs and opportunities than humanities.

But is outcome transparency the metric that we should use to govern choices? If one thing tends to be easy to measure and another hard, does it make sense to choose the easier one simply on that basis?

Last month, I wrote about the coming disruption of higher education. Specifically, I argued that the most important role of the university — making graduates employable — will soon be disrupted as learning outcomes become more transparent (the question is: how much?). I was careful to note that students expect universities to deliver both short-term and long-term employability. STEM skills are great for short-term employability. But we also want universities to prepare graduates for the long term – to teach them how to learn.

According to a study by Cathy Davidson, co-director of the annual Macarthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Competitions, 65% of today’s elementary school students will end up doing jobs that don’t exist yet. In addition to proficiency in science and technology, our workers need skills that can translate from job to job or industry to industry in a dynamic economy – skills like communications, strategy, interpersonal, and multicultural skills.

STEM skills are immediately and transparently applicable to a number of tasks when one enters the workforce. They provide a great foundation for early-stage career jobs. But no matter how strong one’s technical skills, it is very difficult in most organizations to advance beyond a certain point without strong communication skills, interpersonal skills, and good judgment.

We might test this hypothesis by looking at which background, STEM vs. non-STEM, tends to be better represented in the ranks of corporate upper management. We can’t just look at data of senior executives as a whole, because selection bias exists in the pool of talent available for promotion at most companies. That is, if companies have a shortage of STEM workers to begin with, we can expect as its non-STEM workers are gradually promoted that that dynamic will continue into upper management. However, it would be possible to find a careful sample of companies that have roughly equal numbers of STEM workers as non-STEM, performing tasks of roughly equal importance in aggregate, and where both sides have roughly equal opportunities for advancement. It would be very interesting to design a study around all the companies nationally that fit that profile, and see who gets promoted more to upper management. (It would also be interesting to see if that changes over time, or from country to country.) My bet is the non-STEM workers, as a group, tend to be more represented in upper management.

Humanities majors excel even in technology, where there are far more STEM-trained workers than not. Just off the top of my head I can name Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel, and Chris Dixon – like me, all philosophy majors. At Knewton, we have plenty of programmers and data scientists who graduated with liberal arts degrees. One of our data scientists, John Davies, studied English at Harvard. He finds his education directly relevant to his job: “I wrote my thesis on Paradise Lost. One crucial skill I developed while studying literature, and especially while writing my thesis, was extracting structure from complicated systems. And that’s exactly what I do here – try and find the fundamental structures that explain how education works.” (Plus, he adds, “I’m good at catching typos in other people’s code.”)

As we make choices – personal career choices, or national policy choices, and everything in between – about promoting STEM and defunding non-STEM, are we to some degree choosing early or obvious needs over later or less obvious (but just as important) needs? As a society, we seem to blindly accept that since STEM is good we need more of it. And STEM is good. But are we making the right choices accordingly? There must be tests, like the one I tried to devise above, that could use data to assess the possible consequences of defunding non-STEM. Let’s have that discussion – before we see even more schools cut back further on their humanities studies.

Lorenzo Received by the Liberal Arts Procession – Botticelli, photo from Scott MacLeod Liddle on Flickr