Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Score One for the Liberal Arts

By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant. 

We spend a lot of time focusing on STEM education in economic development. We worry that as a nation, a state, a county, a community we’re falling behind our peers in STEM education so we create STEM focused programs for K-12 students. We lament the fact that fewer and fewer students are obtaining college degrees in STEM areas so we encourage our young adults to major in STEM areas and we tell them about all the job opportunities there will be for them with an engineering, mathematics, applied science, etc. degree.

You really don’t see economic developers suggesting the workforce might be better off with more training in philosophy, or history, or poetry, or dead languages. It’s not just economic developers that are focused on STEM areas either. It’s college chancellors, and the president, not to mention scores of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles—if I had a nickel for every time someone asked what I was going to do with a philosophy degree…

Last month Daniel Jelski, a professor of chemistry and former dean of the School of Science and Engineering at SUNY New Platz, penned an article for the New Geographer that suggests maybe those humanities degrees aren’t so useless after all. In fact, the humanities may be better at helping students to develop and hone the skills Jelski sees as necessary for future employment.

Jelski lays out three laws for future employment: #1 People will get jobs doing things that computers can’t do, #2 A global market place will result in lower pay and fewer opportunities for many careers, #3 Professional people will more likely be freelancers and less likely to have a steady job. According to Jelski, there’s good reason to think there will be fewer STEM careers in the future as more and more jobs are computerized. That there are fewer electrical engineering majors today than there were 25 years ago doesn’t trouble Jelski because thanks to computers we need far fewer electrical engineers than we did 25 years ago. The same is true of chemists and mathematicians. Even computer scientists and programmers are not immune; many of the jobs done by programmers 25 years ago are now done by computers. While education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics will always be important, Jelski suggests that education in the humanities might be equally good, if not better, for preparing people for jobs in the future.

In the future, Jelski predicts that as more and more people become freelancers, it isn’t credentials or simple job training that job-seekers will need, but rather self-generated expertise and abilities that can’t be replicated by computers (like empathy and compassion)—things which cannot be taught, but may be better nurtured with at least some education in the humanities, where students are more often encouraged to cultivate their general curiosity about the world, develop their own programs of study, and do more than just follow the directions to earn their credential.

Ultimately though Jelski thinks it isn’t what we study that will matter because it isn’t an education that we’ll need but rather a set of softer skills—skills that cannot be directly taught, but are nonetheless often developed in school. What Jelski doesn’t mention is that it is the development of these same skills that liberal arts college presidents and Montessori, Waldorf, and other alternative pedagogy school proponents have long touted as the most important parts of their educational strategies.

If Jelski’s right, it may mean that we should stop trying to play catch up when it comes to test scores in STEM areas and stop making the focus of education the ability to memorize formulas and follow directions. It may mean we should start instead to try and get ahead of the game by following the lead of Montessori, Waldorf, and liberal arts schools and turn our focus toward teaching our children how to learn, how to love learning, how to think for themselves, and how to care about and respect each other.