Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Friday, February 4, 2011

In Defense of the Humanities

"Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.... That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse." Mr. John Keating, Dead Poet's Society

If you watched last week's State of the Union address, you could not help but notice President Obama's heavy emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math education (or "STEM" for short.) In what he termed our "Sputnik moment", President Obama called for a renewed emphasis on STEM in order to drive invention and create more jobs here in America (in the context of his call last year to train 100,000 new STEM teachers, one might wonder what is "new" about this year's emphasis; but I digress.) In this poor economy, one can excuse the President's focus on creating new jobs for Americans. However, we need to be careful about being overly reactive to the needs of the moment to the detriment of our nation's long-term health, particularly as it pertains to education.[1]

What do I mean? One must look at our system and wonder if our falling math and science scores are at all related to a lack of emphasis on STEM. I propose that they are not. For example, at my alma mater, the largest, newest buildings on campus are the engineering and technology buildings; the oldest and most dilapidated are the liberal arts buildings. The History department is located in a single hallway in the back of the library. You would not even know it was there if you were not looking for it. Need another example? At my university, a rough estimate shows that roughly two-thirds of the students in any given teacher education class are STEM majors. The remaining third are English majors, which if you paid attention in algebra class, you would recognize that does not leave a whole lot of room for the rest of the humanities.

By my lights, we are fully focused on STEM education. We are throwing the kitchen sink at it, and yet, according to our politicians at least, we are lagging behind the competition. So maybe our neglect of STEM is not the problem; perhaps we are administering the wrong medication. Perhaps we are administering penicillin when amoxicillin would do the trick. But if our neglect of STEM is not the problem, then what is? I propose that our focus on STEM is the problem.

If that last statement did not cause you to write me off as a kook and you are still with me, let me explain what I mean. I think most people with some cultural perspective would agree that our young people generally have a motivation problem (not all young people, mind you; just generally speaking.) Who can blame them? They have an unprecedented number of distractions pulling at them: technologies that demand immediate attention and response like smart phones and iPads; increased access to their peers afforded by social networking media; instability in their homes severe enough to incapacitate most adults involved, who are (ideally, at least) better equipped emotionally to handle the instability; immersive video games the likes of which the world has never seen before; romantic relationships with increased sexual activity and the related emotional duress; and all the normal stresses of adolescence like biological changes, balancing school, extracurricular activities, and a social life, etc. It is a lot to expect young people to manage.

On top of all this, we as a society are force-feeding them subjects like chemistry and pre-calculus, subjects that perhaps 2% of the population might use in the course of their life (I made that number up; contest it if you like.) Not that there is anything wrong with these subjects in and of themselves; what I am addressing is the emphasis being placed upon them by our society. I propose that these subjects do not generally cultivate a love of learning. Few things about math and science evoke passion in students to better themselves, to challenge themselves in ways they might not otherwise. They do not necessarily drive students to think critically about important issues of life: love, personal fulfillment, the meaning of happiness, etc. By over emphasizing them, we are in effect running a risk of quashing a love of learning in students that are required to create the captains of industry that our nation so needs. It is part of what Mr. Keating was getting at when he said that they are "necessary to sustain life... but [not] what we stay alive for." Education needs to be a goal in and of itself; students need to be encouraged to pursue an education in order to become a certain kind of person, to find what they "stay alive for."

But what kind of education can provide this kind of self-actualization for students? Students need to be exposed to humanity in a way that I fear is not currently happening: in order to realize their own potential - for both good and evil - students need to be exposed to the great heroes - and villains - of human history. A liberal arts education, one with a strong humanities emphasis, provides the kind of immersion in the human experience requisite for this kind of self-actualization. By reading of Odysseus the man who was never at a loss and of arms and mighty Aeneus, by studying the ethical philosophies of Jesus of Nazareth that changed the course of world history, by examining the genius of Beethoven's 9th Symphony or Shakespeare's sonnets, by learning of the founding of a great nation, by analyzing the diabolical mind of Adolph Hitler and the stalwart defiance of Churchill, and much more, students can come to realize that all of human history is what Mr. Keating described as "a powerful play" in which they too "can contribute a verse." 


[1] None of this should be taken as a partisan political attack on President Obama. I take the Republicans to be equally culpable in what I perceive to be a miscalculation in the purposes of education.


  1. 1) Similar to athletics, STEM researchers put money in the coffers of the institution. When researchers are pulling in multi-million dollar research grants, they tend to be noticed. 40% of the funds from Research grants are directed back to the university for facilities, maintenance and to support the activities of other departments on campus.

    2)I will agree that there is a disproportionate number of teachers coming out in STEM fields to others. However as universities look at ways to offset decreasing state funds enrollment caps will become the norm. Increasingly, high performance at the high school level in STEM, English and History will equate to high possibility of acceptance even at state institutions that previously had no cap.

    3) In terms of Idaho public education, more emphasis does need to be made at the elementary level on the old three basics: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. Note that this does not include: art, Music, PE, Health, Computers or any foreign language. Someone took the time (and I realize that I will need to find it now) to look at the exit exam from the 8th Grade in 1876. Makes today's high school exit exam laughable.

  2. One of your best articles Chris--thanks.

    "Few things about math and science evoke passion in students to better themselves, to challenge themselves in ways they might not otherwise."

    All that math did to me is make me figure out a way around it. This DID make me better in some ways. I mean, after years of cheating to to get a passing score my eye-sight, subterfuge, and evasion tactics all improved dramatically. I'm pretty sure I could sneak in or out of the Pentagon if I needed to. Anyway, math/science was helpless to teach me that cheating was wrong and left this student frustrated and displaced.

    Was the animated video yours?

  3. @DD, thanks for your reply. My concerns are not with private industry investing money in universities or secondary school STEM programs. It is their money they are investing, so I would expect them to invest it in programs that would benefit them. However, when it is state or federal money being invested, I would expect it to be invested more equitably (unless perhaps, if that money is being spent at one of the military academies; but that might be a different issue.) Anyway, as I said, if it is a private company, like Micron for example, donating money to a university, I would expect it to go into a STEM program. Federal and state funding is different.

    As I understand him, Jefferson, the father of the public education system, advocated publicly funded education to create an informed citizenry that understood the issues and voted responsibly. STEM programs have almost nothing to do with this. In my mind, we've lost sight of the whole purpose of public education.

    One more point. I can excuse private sector interests that continually wax poetic about STEM education: it is the life-blood of their industry; however, when I hear politicians and, even worse, educators droning on about it, my blood pressure starts to rise. They should know better.

    @Matt, That made me smile. You're cloak-and-dagger skills are famous, and for good reason. Glad you enjoyed the video. 18 views and counting. Watch out, Star Wars Kid.