Oh, The Humanities! Why STEM Shouldn’t Take Precedence Over the Arts

Posted March 11, 2013

As much trouble as the education industry is in, every state continues to witness the dissolving of the very funds intended to help it. Major cuts in education have been directed toward the arts and humanities where millions of students are being deprived of these subjects and outlets.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly 1.5 million elementary students are without music, nearly 4 million are without the visual arts, and almost 100% of them, more than 23 million, are educated without dance and theatre.

Government Push for STEM

While the Department of Education (DoE) attempts to find a one-size-fits-all solution for more than 14,000 public school districts through its Common Core Standards, the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) have been placed as the focal point for education, well ahead of arts and humanities.

Dave Csintyan, CEO of the educational non-profit organization See the Change USA, feels taking away from the arts and humanities programs is the wrong answer but said the push for STEM may actually have a positive effect on arts and humanities students who are exposed to STEM learning.

"Rigorous STEM exposure is equally applicable to professional success no matter the field of choice," he said.

Education reform has been a major part of Barack Obama’s presidency, who has proposed a bill called the STAPLE Act, which would provide immigrant PhD students in STEM fields a green card upon graduation. The argument is that these students, who commonly return to their home country to develop companies and businesses, should be given the option to remain in America and help boost the economy.

This potential law is a major player in the push for STEM. It voices the government’s insistence that the education system is not producing enough Master’s and PhD STEM graduates.

But the major push for STEM education in America may, in fact, not be that necessary after all. A Georgetown University, Rutgers University, and Urban Institute-collaborated study found that "U.S. colleges and universities are graduating as many scientists and engineers as ever before…[and the] findings indicate that STEM retention along the pipeline shows strong and even increasing rates of retention from the 1970s to the late 1990s. Over the past decade, U.S. colleges and universities graduated roughly three times more scientists and engineers than were employed in the growing science and engineering workforce."

It seems the great migration toward STEM by the government will indeed have adverse effects and not solely in regards to the cuts in education funds. There is the economic impact to consider, as well.

The Americans for the Arts Arts and Economic Prosperity IV study showed that the nonprofit arts and culture industry accounts for more than four million full-time jobs and more than $135 billion in economic activity. It also generates over $22 billion in revenue for local, state, and federal governments each year.

But access to the arts for students of all ages continues to shrink as more government officials continue to solely invest in STEM, forcing the arts and humanities to fend for themselves.

According to Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, picking a degree shouldn’t be up to the student. It should be up to what is best for the student, or at least what he thinks is best for the student.

"I want to spend our money getting people science, technology, engineering and math degrees," he said in a radio interview on WNDB-AM in Daytona Beach. "That’s what our kids need to focus all of their time and attention on: those type of degrees that when they get out of school, they can get a job."

Stronger Together Than Apart

Eric Darr, president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, said he doesn’t think arts and humanities students are being turned off from pursuing those particular degrees, although some of the recent press may help sway some of their decisions – in particular articles about salary comparisons.

"The social sciences — communications, pre-law, journalism — continue to be very popular," he said.

As much as the DoE encourages the increase in STEM, it is aware that education needs the influence of the arts and humanities.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences formed its Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) at the request of Congress. The group, comprised of scientists, engineers, leading business executives, philanthropists, jurists, artists, and journalists, were asked to find the answers to a question posed by Congress: What actions should government officials take to maintain national excellence in humanities and social science education in order to better improve the economy and civil society?

Darr believes it is a mistake to try to separate STEM and the social sciences. He said they are both stronger together.

Recent moves by government officials looking to improve education, however, have done just that via budget cuts.

One of the more obvious statements in the STEM push is the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative, which places all 50 states in an academic competition to be the best and be eligible for additional education funding, has STEM emphasis as one of its seven point factors. Arts and humanities, however, is not on the list.

Many have gravitated to the idea that STEM is the best source for innovation and job creation. But according to the Americans for the Arts organization, their studies show that children involved in the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement and four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair.

These same students are also three times more likely to be elected to class office in their school, giving them early leadership skills and making them more apt to become leaders in the business world.

Karl Eikenberry, a fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, former ambassador to Afghanistan and a retired general was reported saying during a CHSS discussion at Stanford that knowledge of history, foreign languages and cultures can help America more successfully navigate the increasing number of multinational issues that need multinational solutions.

The need for advancements in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics will never cease, as will the need for the study of social sciences like human behavior, languages, linguistics, and philosophy. The answer is the continual interworking of both.

"The new economy requires that we continue to improve and encourage STEM education because mastering existing and new technologies is vital," said Edward Abeyta, director of K-16 Programs at the University of California-San Diego Extension. "It also requires that arts be included in the curricula to capture the full potential of the whole-brain."

He said the education industry needs to take a STEAM approach.

"It is using the combination of all these capabilities that drives creativity and innovation," he said of STEAM. "The future economic cost of not having a whole brain education system that fosters creativity and innovation is immense. It requires retraining instructors to teach how to deal with ambiguities and nuances – how to think creatively and how to construct or deal with abstract issues instead of so much of the emphasis being on teaching facts. Teachers will need to teach our students to ‘think’ – not memorize."

One of the major components of STEM is rote memorization which can hinder a student’s ability to think freely on subjects. When social sciences and arts are provided, students are able to understand problems rather than simply accepting solutions.

Even if the STEAM approach is best, funding cuts to arts and humanities programs remain an inescapable reality. In the face of such cuts, arts and humanities students will have less career counseling and professional guidance in school than their STEM peers. As such, these students need to become their own career coaches and figure out for themselves how to convince employers of the relevance and value of their degrees.

How Humanities Students Can Help Themselves

Humanities students need to educate themselves on how to communicate their abilities and ideas. Also, having a firm business foundation along with understanding the importance of their own craft is essential to impressing an employer and landing a job.

Darr said students must place themselves in the best position to secure a job coming out of college and gave some tips on how to do it:

  • Keep a portfolio of your work. Through your education, internships, and early career, continue to catalog documents, audio and video recorded projects, and any other materials showing your work. Not having proof that you are talented in your field can be costly.
  • For those in the arts field, creating a portfolio of your work – whether art, music, film – gives employers an insight into your established work and where you are headed in your field. The portfolio needs to show the quality and complexity of your work and how it has progressed over time. A portfolio should mimic a timeline providing visual evidence of professional growth.
  • Get an internship – at all costs. Earning a degree is a must, but obtaining internship work related to your industry is vital. When applying for a job, nearly every professional opening requires some experience. It is very important to have on a resume to show that you have some idea of what it is to work in your area. Even a short history of understanding how to conduct social science research or working in an arts industry is steps ahead of someone who only has a degree. A philosophy major may consider interning with a law firm or a consulting firm to become comfortable in a business environment.
  • Take classes that help you become a good communicator. At the end of your college career, take a course on communication, preferably one that will count toward your degree. Most degree programs give students the ability to take upper level courses of their choosing. For example, a student studying philanthropy may consider taking a business course to help them understand the business side of non-profit work.
  • To fully participate in today’s society, you need to have some knowledge of technology – even if you’re a fine arts student. Most schools offer courses in social media. Knowing how to use and manage social networking sites will go a long way in helping you land a career job.

There is no denying the importance of STEM education and the economic and technological impacts it has on the world. But STEM standing alone, or by itself atop the educational mountain, will soon prove counterproductive.

"The idea that we must choose between science and humanities," Abeyta said, "is false."

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