More specifically, a liberal arts education. Or is it? Well, if you ask Florida governor Rick Scott (link to full speech, here), it’s useless and will soon be subject to large budget cuts. And if you ask New York Times columnist, David Brooks (link to full article, here), it’s essential to modern society and should not be retired. Me, being a high school student and a few years away from entering college and choosing a major, decided to investigate.
Whatever the humanities enthusiasts may say, the facts are slightly skewed towards the math and science degrees. It’s no secret that science degrees are popular and safe. If you scan through the highest earning occupations for college graduates (full list, here), the top ten to twenty degrees are stacked with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) related fields. Everything from zoology, to chemical engineering, to pre-medical degrees was included. If you scan to the bottom, there are an increased number of humanities related fields. These included education, music, foreign language, and English degrees.
But before English and history students are up in arms, there are a couple important distinctions to be made about science degrees. The first is the presence of science. Even me, a high school student, can understand that. Everything is related to science. From the building you’re sitting in, to the computer you’re using, to the pen you write it. Without science, it’s hard to imagine where the world would be and how we would be able to function. Science is used for two main purposes in my opinion: to improve our current lives by making them easier, or to solve pressing issues. Without STEM majors, scientific expansion and the evolution of technology would be seriously hindered.
The second is the world presence of science. With the world growing into a multi-cultural society, there is no longer a sole dominant country like the United States of the 1950’s. There is increased competition. An interesting fact to show this is of the comparison of the world’s education systems (full list, here). The poll is taken to show a country’s average proficiency with a subject and is taken out of one thousand points. The United States placed a paltry fourteenth in the latest education poll, not awful considering that the poll was taken out of the thirty four first world or close to first world countries, but dreadful considering other countries including South Korea, Finland, and Japan, placed higher, despite English not being the primary language used for communication purposes. However, the U.S. dipped out of the top twenty all together in math, placing a ghastly twenty fifth, despite the scores decreasing by only thirteen points (US reading was scored at 500, US math was scored at 487). This shows that more emphasis is placed in other countries on math and math-related degrees. With more emphasis comes more competition. And in order to match the competition, the United States needs to place more emphasis on these STEM type of degrees it would seem.
However, it is not so simple. English degrees are important. In a complete 180-degree spin, it seems as if English is related to everything as well. It is the way we communicate, the way we interact with one another, and it is the way our thoughts and ideas are expressed. Everything from this blog post to a street sign to a newspaper requires English or any other language. And where would science be if it weren’t for English? Behind every scientific project, is an excellent research paper, which communicates to the audience how and why the experiment was conducted, and the results of it. Likewise, I cannot imagine any current electronic devices doing well without excellent user interface or any companies doing well without excellent communication skills, which are both heavily influenced by the humanities degrees.
From the 15th and 16th centuries, large portions of education systems were based off of the study of classic texts, philosophy, and the liberal arts (McKay). The Dutch humanist, Erasmus, once proclaimed that a humanities education “implies the education and training most in keeping with our full human nature and most advantageous to our intellectual and moral growth” (Olin). Humanists, like Erasmus and who practiced humanism, which is the study of all components of human nature, especially individuals achievements, capabilities, beliefs and practices, and education and philosophy, believed that education, specifically the study of classics, both in literature and philosophy, was the basis of reform. According to John McKay, “these classics, humanists taught, would provide models of how to write clearly, argue effectively, and speak persuasively, important skills for future diplomats, lawyers, military leaders, businessmen, and politicians” (McKay 414).
David Brooks of the New York Times argues that the main reason why there has been a shift from humanities related degrees is because “when the job market worsens, many students figure they can’t indulge in an English or a history major”. He comments that there are many benefits. The first point he makes is that humanities fields improve the ability to read, write, and comprehend, which are valuable skills for office work. Also, humanities majors can write and express their thoughts easier and more articulately, which can lead to better big picture comparisons, can inspire ideas, and allow for deeper scientific inquiry. Brooks questions us by asking if “learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different sacred rituals and learning to see in different ways” are important. He says that “these men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them” and that “they left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities”. Brooks echoes the ideas presented by McKay by speaking about the importance of communication and studying history to further society and it’s benefits in current society.
I personally believe that both these types of degrees are essential. Because of this, I believe that they should be taught in an interdisciplinary fashion. While I have no experience in college, I believe that science should be taught in a more interactive fashion, with a larger emphasis on the reporting and communication aspect of the process. In a recent New York Times report, a high number of students show interest in science in their early years. However, approximately sixty percent of all STEM majors either switch degrees, or fail to receive degrees, which is more than double that of other majors. Even if a portion of those were to receive degrees, President Obama’s initiative to graduate ten thousand more engineers would be easily reached. The reason behind this staggering number is simple: science is hard. Even in high school, science is difficult. Majoring in a specific field at the nation’s most prestigious universities is an extremely daunting task. This is one of the reasons why science and math majors post the lowest GPA’s on most college campuses. One of the reasons I believe science should be more interactive is that learning advanced math and science in a class with over five hundred people can be very overwhelming. While science in school is largely experiment based, watching stuff blow up and explode, university science classes largely revolve around brute memorization, which most would argue, is extremely boring. No doubt, there are logistical problems with my scenario, including an adequate budget, but even the Association of American Universities, one of the most respected research institutions announced that they were planning on pursuing more interactive teaching methods (Drew) .
There are problems with English majors though. The first, like I previously stated, is that English fields are not always the most stable for high-income jobs. An interesting parallel could be made to the entertainment industry. For every famous actor or musician, how many on a day-to-day basis struggle by only receiving temporary low paying work? Similarly, for a writer, for every J.K. Rowling, how many writers are stuck with no source of income and unpublished pieces of writing? How many aspiring writers, like in the image below, are left to keep dreaming? While all engineers or doctors may not necessarily “break the bank”, there is no question that they can provide a steady income for years. What we (by we I mean people like me, the young people of America) choose to do with our lives will alter the course of American history. Will America in ten years be known as the country that produces the insightful and articulate workers in the world? Or will we be known as the country that consistently places in the bottom quartile in math education?
Drew, Christopher. “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard) .” The New York Times [New York City, NY] 4 Nov. 2011: Web. 1 Jan. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/education/edlife/why-science-majors-change-their-mind-its-just-so-darn-hard.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all>.
McKay, John, Bennett Hill, et al. A History of Western Society. B. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. Print.
Olin, John. Christian humanism and the Reformation: selected writings of Erasmus. 3. New York City, NY: Fordham University Press, 1987. eBook.