Public Agenda
Commentary

For Tomorrow's World, Should Engineers Study a Little Art History?

Jean Johnson

Reprinted from The Huffington Post - September 19, 2013

Recently, there's been a flurry of reports detailing which college majors offer the best starting salaries and which offer the worst. The top ten are all various forms of STEM degrees--science, technology, engineering, and math. Newly-minted petroleum engineers can expect to start out at about $100,000 per year. At the other end of the spectrum are students with degrees in social work, elementary education, and child and family studies. Their starting salaries are just over $30,000.

In many respects, these numbers bear out what business and government experts have been telling us for years. The future of the U.S. economy lies in STEM, and we need more young people entering these fields. Impressive starting salaries are just the economy's signal that it wants and needs more STEM talent.

But does that mean that colleges and universities should make STEM education their top priority and de-emphasize less "relevant" subjects? Should today's college students sidestep courses in art history and music and invest all their time and money in STEM courses instead?

Not according to the students, professors, parents, retirees, and others who have been deliberating the future of higher education in citizen meetings convened by the National Issues Forums (NIF). Full disclosure, as journalists say, I sit on NIF's board. It's a network of schools, libraries, community colleges, book clubs, and other local groups that host forums each year where people can talk about alternative ways to address major issues. Last year, participants discussed the national debt. This year, it's higher education. Already, the NIF network has organized well over 100 forums on higher education in venues ranging from college campuses to senior living centers.

It's not that most people coming to the NIF forums don't care about science and technology. Participants repeatedly point out its importance to the economy and its tantalizing potential for helping humanity address all manner of challenges. The country's need for innovators is a continual theme. Yet, most participants also seem to see a danger in students being too narrowly educated. And most see a genuine value in giving students at least some time and space to explore a range of subjects and ideas.

Here's how someone attending a Kansas forum put it: "Innovation is the strength of the United States in science and technology. That means a broadly educated and experienced person. . . . They need to be very good at their technology or science, but [they need more than that] or we're going to be another China. They're very good at technology. They're not very good at innovation. That's why they send their students here."

In fact, advocates trying to get more Americans interested in STEM by showcasing China's (and India's) prowess in graduating engineers may be off-message. The subject of China comes up repeatedly in the NIF forums, often as a cautionary tale about what happens when students focus too much on single field. Ironically, the Chinese are showing a growing interest in the liberal arts themselves. Xiong Qingnian, who directs a research institute on higher education at Fudan University in Shanghai, described the goal: "We want our students to have more varied views on society. That is why Fudan wants to focus on the liberal arts."

For many in the NIF forums, lack of creativity and vision is only one hazard to being too narrowly educated. Many see the U.S. economy as an employment shape shifter, so according to this view, focusing too much on 2013 job skills could be a mistake. In Iowa, one participant commented that "whatever [students are] studying right now is probably not going to be true in five years, two years, maybe. You don't know, maybe next year. You can't learn this box and then use that forever, because that's not the way the world is now." Students in the forums often struggle with the tension between choosing courses that might help them get a job on graduation versus choosing the kind of education that would give them the adaptability and flexibility to remain employable and prosper over the years.

What's most interesting about the forums so far is the high regard most participants have for an education that encourages students to wrestle with new ideas, sample new fields, and meet people from outside their own experiences. For many, this is the very essence of what it means to become an educated person. "Granted," said one woman said, "I'm biased towards the liberal arts, but if you have a higher education background, period, you've had opportunity to be exposed to different cultures, different lifestyles, different religions, different belief systems, and you have a heart that is not -- a heart and a mind that are both opened, and I think that's what education does for you."

In the forums, participants have a chance to weigh three different options concerning the missions for higher education: 1) focusing on science and technology education to help the economy; 2) offering students a rich, broad education that emphasizes integrity and working together; and 3) expanding opportunity by helping more students attend college and graduate. As might be expected, most participants see important values in all three missions.

What many question, however, is the trend of talking about college mainly as career training--whether it's in STEM or something else. Better job training is essential, many say, for high school graduates who want to enter the work force immediately or aren't interested in a more traditional college education. Offering a wider range of post-secondary options was a clear winner in most of the deliberations.

But it is also clear from these forums that the ability to go to college and get a broad and rich education that expands a student's vision and understanding of the world is still important for many Americans. Maybe it's more important than ever.


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