Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy -- problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of this change is hard.
-- Obama's 2014 State of the Union Address.
President Obama's 2014 State of the Union Address was ripe with the types of assertions education activists have been preaching for years: we need to invest in early education, we need to make post-secondary education more affordable, we need to support rather than stigmatize our high school teachers and we need to stop measuring students by how well they can "fill in a bubble on a test." However, despite his calls for education reform, Obama reinforces the current educational paradigm by highlighting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as the skills students need for the new economy.
Now, I love science; science and I have always had a loving, healthy relationship. I get excited just thinking about angiogenesis and cell signaling pathways. However, despite my love for science, I am a zealous advocate for the place of arts and humanities in education. Heck, while I'm on a roll I'm going to come out and and say I even encourage liberal arts educations. Despite what the movie Accepted would have you think (that the purpose of college is to get a job), I don't believe the primary focus of education is to equip students with the skills demanded by the current labor landscape.
Yes, we need to prepare students for the new economy, but we also need to prepare them for the new global society that is dawning upon us. This new society will be characterized by environmental, financial, scientific, religious, cultural, inter-governmental and medical dilemmas that are unprecedented and unpredictable. How do we prepare students for a new economy, when we have no idea what kinds of labor demands will exist five years from now, much less 10 or15? Rather, we should be equipping students with the skills to problem-solve, innovate and create under unexpected and even unfavorable circumstances.
The struggle to reason through topics that may seem absurd, as arts and humanities often do, exercises thought processes that will benefit students far beyond the realm of academia. In addition to independence of thought, what liberal art educations provides us with is culture, and culture is is what keeps us grounded to our humanity. Furthermore, far from conflicting with STEM, the arts and humanities actually have a lot to offer to the realm of STEM academia. After all, the arts inherently foster the skills of collaboration, innovation, flexibility and imagination necessary to address the issues of both the new economy and the new global society.
Thus, if you don't support liberal arts educations for their own merit, I hope you see their benefits at least in application to STEM. Not only can the two coexist, I daresay, they can indeed thrive in a mutually symbiotic relationship.