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The Liberal Arts in an Age of STEM: Part 1: Recognizing the Pattern

Curriculum Planning and Development Leadership and Management

The Liberal Arts in an Age of STEM: Part 1: Recognizing the Pattern

In the view of legislators, governing boards, and certain administrators, higher education needs to assign a much greater emphasis to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. That’s where the jobs are, the argument goes, and these are the academic fields where today’s research will result in the discoveries that will support tomorrow’s economy, national security, and quality of life. At many colleges and universities, that argument is having an effect. Enrollments in courses related to the STEM disciplines are growing while the number of students declaring a major in the arts, humanities, and some of the social sciences are stagnating or even declining.

Faculty members in these non-STEM areas often feel threatened by these developments. They see investment made in other fields while their own fields lose positions, are merged with others, or are phased out entirely. They hear politicians sing the praises of the natural sciences and engineering while at times openly mocking the study of English, anthropology, classical languages, comparative literature, and drama. And they make well-intentioned but largely ineffective responses to these perceived threats. For example, they try to propose alternatives to STEM in which they can be included, such as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics) or even STREAM (science, technology, reading, engineering, the arts, and mathematics). They claim that students interested in their fields are out there; it’s just that admissions offices aren’t trying hard enough to recruit them.

Those responses largely fall flat and with good reason. Aside from the people who propose them, almost no one finds much value in the acronyms STEAM and STREAM. They come across for what they are: desperate attempts to include one’s own field among a set of disciplines that aren’t clearly related to it. Almost anyone can see the features that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics share with one another, but the connection to the arts and reading seems tenuous, forced, and ultimately unconvincing.

As for the claim that there are actually sizable numbers of potential students clamoring for admission to liberal arts programs but that university recruiters (maliciously? cravenly?) ignore them in favor of those who prefer to study the physical sciences, that’s not a very convincing argument either. A few emails to colleagues at other institutions will prove to these faculty members that it’s not just their own schools where the interests of incoming students seems to have shifted. The notion that recruiters just need to “try harder” to attract students passionate about the fine arts and humanities makes little sense. If the schools of the faculty members (and their colleagues at other institutions) who make these claims aren’t being aggressive enough to attract these potential students, where are they all going? And why would an admissions recruiter—whose performance is judged on the number of students he or she attracts—intentionally overlook or discourage any student from applying, no matter what discipline that student wants to study? The truth of the matter is that, if such students actually existed, the easiest option would be for the recruiters to go ahead and enroll them; at least then they wouldn’t be on the receiving end of these repeated and often rather heated claims from the faculty.

A more productive strategy for academic leaders in the liberal arts is to work cooperatively with their faculty members to acknowledge that prospective students, as well as the colleges and universities where they enroll, happen to be in a STEM fad right now. The legislators, governing boards, and administrators who advocate for massive investment in STEM programs don’t realize that what they’re seeing is a fad, not a sustainable trend, because people in the midst of a fad rarely understand the nature of what’s happening as it unfolds. That common tendency explains economic bubbles from the so-called Tulip Mania in the 17th century and the Stock Market Bubble in the 1920s to the dot-com and real estate bubbles in the past several decades. Certain disciplines or groups of disciplines become “hot” for a while because of perceptions that jobs are easier to get or more highly paid in those fields, the media or popular entertainment has made them seem fun and exciting, or there’s a belief that specialists in those areas can solve important ongoing problems.

The last STEM bubble in the post-Sputnik late 1950s and early 1960s soon gave way to a liberal arts bubble in the late 1960s and early 1970s (caused by President Kennedy’s call for young people to engage in national service, the emotional impact of that call following his assassination, and growing resistance to the Vietnam War), the investigative journalism bubble of the 1970s (spawned by Watergate), the archaeology and classics bubble of the 1980s (inspired by the popularity of the Indiana Jones movies), the financial management bubble of the 1990s (as jobs shifted away from manufacturing, and stocks benefitted from a post-Cold War bull market), and so on.

Today’s STEM fad—and that’s precisely what it is—is being fed by the popularity of television programs like The Big Bang Theory (where physicists spend much of their free time playing video games, reading comic books, and engaging in many of the other activities that are also enjoyed by high school students who are thinking about what to study in college), other shows about crime scene investigation (where cutting-edge technology is used to solve mysteries that baffle the macho detectives in the field), and a prevailing cultural stereotype of graduates with literature degrees living in their parents’ basements and finding employment, if at all, only at the entry level of the fast-food industry.

Ironically, the arts, humanities, and social sciences are the very disciplines that help people understand the nature of this fad and its likely trajectory. These are the fields that develop the qualitative skills of pattern recognition and the interpretation of social developments within a larger cultural and historical context. But in the situation that currently exists, what good does that recognition do? What value comes from the knowledge that widespread public interest in STEM fields will inevitably go the way of Beanie Babies, pet rocks, and mood rings? Is there any advantage to liberal education beyond knowing that “short-lived fad” is pronounced with a long, not a short “i”?

(In Part 2 of this two-part series, Jeff Buller will outline five specific steps that academic leaders should be taking now in order to position their schools and programs for better success in the higher education environment that will develop once the STEM bubble bursts.)

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.


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