STEM and Liberal Arts: They Need Each Other

Thursday, July 11, 2013 -- Andrea Gronberg

STEM and liberal arts aren't mutually exclusive – in fact, they can't be separated 

It is obvious that STEM education has been the recipient of a huge amount of attention recently – and rightly so. STEM education has been lagging and in need of increased funding, innovation, recruitment, and focus. However, has STEM been emphasized at the expense of a more holistic education? Are we overlooking the liberal arts tradition that has historically made for more well-rounded learners and citizens?

A new report form the American Academy of Arts and Sciences makes an impassioned case for the importance of the humanities in creating not just learners with a better overall education, but learners who are far better prepared to be competitive in a global economy.

The report, from the Academy's Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, is called The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation. The report was requested by Senators Lamar Alexander (a former Secretary of Education) and Mark Warner, and Representatives Tom Petri and David Rice (two Republicans and two Democrats, for those interested).  It identifies three goals and thirteen broad recommendations for “advancing the humanities and social sciences in America.” At the same time, what it does not do is try to swing the pendulum too far the other way, away from STEM and toward humanities exclusivity, and says that “scholars and teachers should begin to reverse the trend toward an ever-more fragmented curriculum.” In fact, it acknowledges the importance of STEM and recommends emulating some of the steps forward in STEM. For example, it suggests “the creation of a Humanities Master Teacher Corps to complement the STEM Master Teacher Corps.” It argues that STEM and the liberal arts are of a piece – science is a liberal art, and the liberal arts include science. And a complete education includes them all.

The first goal – “Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy” - has its first recommendation “Support literacy as the foundation for all learning.” It seems to be very difficult to argue with that.

One thing that is striking about the report is the commentary – and broad general support – it has received not just within education circles, but in the media in general. The commission's website resources link to dozens of media references to the report, as well as a half dozen op-ed commentaries, including:

June 20, 2013 – The New York Times
David Brooks: The Humanist Vocation

June 20, 2013 – Los Angeles Times
James Cuno: The soft sciences matter as much as ever

June 19, 2013 - Raleigh News & Observer
Richard Brodhead: The humanities and social sciences remain essential

June 19, 2013 - Time
Annette Gordon-Reed: Critics of the Liberal Arts Are Wrong

June 19, 2013 – Miami Herald
Donna Shalala & Eduardo Padrón: Humanities, social sciences for a vibrant competitive, secure nation

June 18, 2013 – USA Today
Norman Augustine & David Skorton: Humanities, social sciences critical to our future

The introduction to the report asserts, “the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.” True enough. How do you integrate STEM and the humanities? In what ways have you experienced an imbalance, in one way or the other? And maybe most important, how will you and your school make sure that your students experience a balanced education in the future?