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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, November 30, 2017 1:00 am

Learn More than simply STEM

State's current educational push shortsightedly slights the humanities

Philip Hicks

Philip Hicks holds the Bruno P. Schlesinger Chair in Humanistic Studies at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana. This column first appeared in the South Bend Tribune.

There's only one reason to go to college, and that's to study one of the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. At least that's what is implied in the magazine handed out in my child's homeroom recently.

Produced by the state of Indiana, this publication presents a very incomplete picture of higher education and overlooks how the humanities are contributing to society today.

Learn More, “Indiana's Guide to Student Success” for grades nine and 10, insists: “There are all kinds of careers – and they're all important!” But it might as well be entitled “Learn More STEM.”

All 11 high school students it features are STEM students (with the possible exception of an outlier studying architecture). Five are pursuing engineering; the rest are planning on careers in anesthesiology, computer programming, physical therapy, land surveying and dentistry.

Likewise, in a section on education careers, the booklet says teachers examine “almost every topic imaginable,” but it limits the range of those topics to scientific subjects, “from aviation to zoology.”

There may be a legitimate public interest in promoting STEM careers, but this magazine never announces this agenda. Instead, it purports to encourage “student success” generally and to explore every option available after high school, from college to military service to apprenticeships. As such, it is misleading.

Learn More puts blinkers on our adolescents at the very time in life when they need to envision a true array of opportunities for their future.

Indiana is not alone in its limited idea of college education.

Since the Great Recession, with rising college costs and student debt, the national culture has mocked the job prospects of liberal arts majors.

Comedians and politicians have made a special target of humanities disciplines such as literature, philosophy, history and languages.

These critics would be surprised to learn:

• Math and science are actually part of the liberal arts (and “liberal” doesn't refer to a political viewpoint).

• Some STEM fields (such as biochemistry and biotechnology) are actually not very lucrative.

• If we consider a decades-long career rather than just the first few years on the job, chemical engineers are at the top of the salary table, but the highest 25 percent of earners with English degrees still make more than the lowest 25 percent of chemical engineers.

• History majors in the 60th percentile of earners make a respectable $2.64 million in a lifetime compared with median earnings of business majors ($2.86 million).

Few graduates will make a living applying their knowledge of Romantic poetry or Zoroastrian religion directly to their jobs. But all of them will apply the skills they developed by studying these topics.

Humanities-trained students have advanced communication skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening.

They know how to construct – and deconstruct – complex arguments.

They can analyze large amounts of data.

They have the flexibility to adapt to a rapidly changing economy and pursue multiple careers over the arc of their working lives.

They think across disciplinary boundaries, connecting the dots between specialized fields.

We call many of these “soft” skills, a term that underestimates the rigor, challenge and significance of humanities disciplines.

To its credit, Learn More values soft skills, but it suggests they can be picked up in part-time jobs and volunteer experiences, seemingly unaware they are taught in humanities classrooms and taught well.

Much of what Learn More advocates rests on the assumption that the only purpose of college is to develop vocational skills.

The humanities indeed develop those skills, but also produce better-informed citizens who have a sophisticated understanding of how government works and can critically evaluate old and new forms of media. Humanists acquire profound self-awareness as well as deep understanding of the larger world.

Do the humanities have a monopoly on these attributes and skills? Of course not – many of these things are taught from primary school on up.

My point is that the humanities specialize in these skills, develop them at a very high level, and make vital contributions to our economy and democracy.

A first step toward meaningfully introducing them to our children is to acknowledge their existence. State government ought to do a better job of that.