STEM for the Liberal Arts?

One of the most popular acronyms in discussions about education these days (no, this is not another post about MOOCs) is STEM – standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It typically comes up in contexts such as “It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to determine that the future of the United States depends heavily on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but bolstering education in these fields is no easy feat.” And, of course, education in the sciences is tremendously important. We do need more trained computer scientists, chemists, engineers, and so forth in order to be competitive in the economy of the twenty-first century.

It is telling that there is no equivalent acronym for the liberal arts. What about critical thinking, fluent analytical writing, the clear expression of ideas, and all those similar skill sets (all capabilities that do not become obsolete with new technologies)? We also need more people with the sophisticated training to sort through and interpret the exponential increase of information in the digital era, an education that can come from fields such as sociology, history, anthropology and literary studies. Few people, however, are making an active, positive case for a liberal arts education right now.

Or so it can seem. In the video below, filmed and edited by the Bok Center, the History Department delivers a forceful argument for the utility of the liberal arts. While they are particularly talking about a History education, their compelling case can apply to a great many more disciplines. The liberal arts are just as vital to modern society as they have ever been. (But I don’t think we’re going to come up with a nifty little acronym for them.)

This post was written by Stephen A. Walsh.

2 thoughts on “STEM for the Liberal Arts?

  1. I understand the point this author makes about the lack of a liberal arts acronym, but “critical thinking, fluent analytical writing, [and] the clear expression of ideas” are not the sole province of the liberal arts–they are integral to a STEM education as well! Every scientist I know would recognize these skills as central to our fields. It is facile, and frankly somewhat offensive, to suggest that STEM only trains technicians who will soon be outmoded. (For one, it is STEM folks who develop the “next waves” of technologies, rather than being outdated by them.) Assertions like the one in this article–and unfortunately I’ve read a few on academic blogs lately–divide us at the point where there is the *most* opportunity for us to recognize what our disciplines have in common, and to emphasize to our students how these same skills translate between all parts of that holistic liberal arts and sciences education we promote.

  2. The presentations that I’ve seen about expanding “STEM to STEAM” have included all sorts of language and visual arts topics that I would not feel capable or comfortable with as part of my thirty years of teaching physics, math, and electronics at the high school and technical college levels. In addition, the current content packed into a semester has more than doubled since I began my career, so there is not time nor resource to include any “arts” instruction, as such, into the courses.

    I certainly agree that there are critical thinking, workplace relationships, and life skills that are important to the STEM curriculum, and I have implemented them as part of the learning process in the classroom. Yet the actual instruction of those techniques belongs to the “soft skills” departments providing instruction in the world language, English, fine arts, and social sciences.

    The traditional STEM subjects are related by common modes of thought dealing with “the nature of science” and “empirical evidence”, which are guided by the rules of logic and mathematics. So a description of “STEM+”, rather than “STEAM”, might be more appropriate to linking the “external” natural sciences to the “internal” social arts.

    Maybe the arts community needs to come up with its own acronym to balance the relative importance of each knowledge domain, rather than trying to merge into “STEM”. May I suggest something like “Communication, Social, and Cultural Arts” or “CSCA”. The common modes of thought in this realm involve “expressions” and “transactions”, which are guided by the “norms” of society. So we might agree on the equation: “STEM + CSCA = 21st Century Curriculum”. In any case, a new acronym and label is needed to replace “Arts and Humanities”, which sounds so medieval these days.

    I do not mean to imply that a STEM curriculum has a priority over other parts of the student’s learning and experience. It’s just that STEM already has enough to do teaching the “hard skills”, that adding any more topics or lessons will dilute the effort and the results at the high school and college levels. Let’s clearly identify that both “arts” and “sciences” are essential parts of the total learning experience.

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