Friday, December 14, 2012

Government picking winners and losers in college?

In a nutshell: We need to shift the debate on STEM vs. liberal arts from an either/or to a both/and discussion.

As reported in The New York Times, Governor Rick Scott of Florida is now proposing that Florida's 12 state universities charge lower tuition for students majoring in "business-friendly" science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects and higher tuition for students majoring in humanities or social science fields.

This is wrong and bad on so many levels, and ironically, perhaps, represents precisely the kind of government regulation of the economy to pick winners and losers that conservatives generally oppose. But I don't want to spend a lot of time dwelling on that now. Instead, I want to propose that we humanists (and our allies) consider supporting a higher education model that encourages all students to have a humanities/social science major and a STEM minor. As callers to Brian Lehrer's show on WNYC are repeatedly affirming right now, we need both: we need students to learn the STEM subjects so they can be prepared for jobs in the post-industrial economy; and we need students to learn the humanities and social sciences so they can think critically, be culturally literate, and be prepared to participate fully as informed citizens in a democratic society.

Right now, this debate seems to be very polarized: Should we support STEM or liberal arts, period. This is ridiculous; typical, but ridiculous. We need to start shifting the debate from an either/or to a both/and discussion. How can we restructure our curricula, at public and private institutions alike, across the entire country, in both K-12 and in higher education, so that we can educate our children holistically and not partially.

The discussion should not be driven by anxiety on the part of liberal arts programs. This paragraph in the NY Times article reveals the disturbing tendency of so-called "liberal arts devotees" to focus on funding concerns rather than social or economic justice:
At the University of Florida, the state’s most prestigious campus, a group of history professors criticized the recommendation for tiered tuition and organized a protest petition. Liberal arts devotees across the state are signing it. The professors said the move would inevitably reduce the number of students who take humanities classes, which would further diminish financing for those departments. In the end, Florida universities with nationally prominent programs, like the one for Latin American history at the University of Florida, will lose coveted professors and their overall luster. 
 At a policy level, the flight from humanities classes is not to be lamented for the toll it will take on departmental budgets, but rather for the impact it will have on students' ability to think critically and perform their civic duty, including serving as energetic, innovative leaders of business and government.

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