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The Liberal Arts Are Dead; Long Live STEM


In recent months, Christopher Scalia in the Wall Street Journal and Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post have defended studying the liberal arts in college, primarily to confront advocates of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Zakaria’s article previewed his new book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education.”

From my perspective as a former engineer, two caveats arise regarding their pleas: first, “liberal” education that involves “critical thinking” disappeared decades ago, to be replaced by hyper-sensitive grievance mongering; second, the quantitative reasoning STEM occupations develops also facilitates the understanding of trade-offs people need to make rational decisions among myriad conflicting policy options.

Liberals Have Killed the Liberal Arts

Political correctness has corroded the humanities and social studies, as recently noted by David Patten in The Federalist and last year by Harvey Silverglate in the Wall Street Journal. After rejecting their objective anchors in the academic canon of classical texts, these fields succumbed to passionate group thinking and sybaritic self-absorption. The arts have become a free-for-all, as witnessed by the plethora of departments categorized by identity politics and demands for “trigger warnings” for traumatized souls. (The offending list should include “eigenvectors” and “thermodynamics”—terms that strike engineering sophomores with utmost dread.)

Students who pursue STEM majors are better at the humanities than liberal-arts majors are at the sciences.

While some complain that science revises its knowledge base episodically, its consensus-driven models yield empirically tested results that opponents cannot arbitrarily dismiss merely by clever erudition or emotional tirade. Hence, STEM remains somewhat less vulnerable to intimidation using the phenomenon of shame-storming, as explained by writer Megan McArdle. Spurred by Griggs v. Duke Power (401 U.S. 424, 1971), a Supreme Court decision that forbade employers from screening applicants with aptitude tests, growth in college attendance expanded both the number of degree-holders to chase limited opportunities and college costs.

STEM curricula have been critiqued for supposedly neglecting the humanities, but students who major in STEM obtain more credit hours in languages, arts, and human interaction than their humanities counterparts obtain in scientific fields. Rhodes College professor Loretta Jackson-Hayes has explained the benefit of liberal arts for STEM students, but liberal-arts students could likewise benefit from cross-training in the more exacting disciplines.

Students who pursue STEM majors are also better at the humanities than liberal-arts majors are at the sciences. Harvard University professor of government Harvey Mansfield in The New Atlantis observed, “Science students do well in non-science courses, but non-science students have difficulty in science courses. Slaves of exactness find it easier to adjust to the inexact, though they may be disdainful of it, than those who think in the realm of the inexact when confronted with the exact.” Perhaps envy subtly contributes to liberal arts defensiveness against STEM.

STEM Is Far More Substantial Than the Liberal Arts

Even on fundamental coursework, however, differences emerge among the respective disciplines. Freshman engineering students, for example, attend an essential core set of courses that includes calculus, physics, and chemistry. Should we assume that English majors still peruse Shakespeare and Chaucer? Probably not. Do philosophy majors read Aristotle, David Hume, or Friedrich Nietzsche any more? Do sociologists study Plato, Voltaire, or James Madison? As University of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen noted, “The humanities today seem to be waning in presence and power in the modern university in large part because of their solipsistic irrelevance, which has predictably increased students’ uninterest in them.”

Should we assume that English majors still peruse Shakespeare and Chaucer? Probably not.

Based on last year’s invitation withdrawals of commencement speakers by Haverford, Rutgers, Smith, Azusa Pacific, and Brandeis in response to demands by graduating seniors and faculty, we might surmise that what students learn of human nature hasn’t even been enlightened by reading “Calvin & Hobbes” comics, much less writings of Jean Calvin and Thomas Hobbes.

The devolution of liberal arts studies has been described by Peter Wood and Michael Toscano in “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” and by Robert Maranto et al. in “The Politically Correct University” regarding cultural indoctrination over reasoned inquiry. The resulting departure from pre-modern literature and immemorial visual imagery in favor of trendy narcissism and ad hominem invective proceeds apace. So-called liberal-arts students can easily reach a diploma without contemplating the real-world consequences of their pet redistributionist policies.

Science Is Better for Society than the Arts

Meanwhile, public officials and business leaders have bemoaned a shortage of STEM training that is supposed to ensure future innovation. Despite entities such as the National Academy of Science trumpeting this alleged deficiency, for almost two decades a relatively consistent 16 percent of bachelor degrees have been awarded in natural science, mathematics, computer science, and engineering, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Critics of the STEM push contend that companies petition for additional temporary H-1B visas while present holders of STEM credentials outnumber related positions, leading to stagnating salaries.

A transition from liberal arts to natural sciences or related fields would constitute a boon to society at large.

Although STEM graduates enjoy somewhat better marketability than those in humanities, human resource departments treat them as commodities with one- to two-decade shelf life, which discourages interest in STEM; so many instead embark on alternate vocations. STEM majors’ often-daunting academic requirements, for which many high schools have not prepared most high-school graduates, also reduces college enrollments in these fields. Nonetheless, the size of the science and engineering (S&E) labor force has stalled for the past decade, further depressing enrollment in these endeavors.

Even if a glut of STEM graduates might depress salaries for those who run the gauntlet of tech classes and lab projects, a transition from liberal arts to natural sciences or related fields would nonetheless constitute a boon to society at large. Instead of Chicken Little-esque histrionics, people should debate the specifics of whether more STEM graduates will benefit society at large despite possibly reducing salaries for people employed in science fields.

The truth is, S&E types likely contribute more to society than the liberal arts. Thomas Edison illuminated (literally) more people’s lives by passing electric charge across a filament than any of the sages of bygone eras did with their musings. Nicola Tesla contributed more power to the public with alternating current motors than all the revolutionaries in history combined.

Are humanities interesting for their own sake? Of course. All who desire the knowledge and beauty of humanities past should pursue a broad education. But why should this require a formal education at tremendous cost in time and money that commensurately benefits neither society nor student? Unlike much empirically-based S&E information and mathematically-expressed theoretical instruction, literature, history, anthropology, and much more are amenable to off-sight lectures and written commentary. (Conservatories can be reserved for mastering techniques in music and art.)

Perhaps boutique liberal arts colleges will inevitably close (e.g., Sweet Briar, Tennessee Temple, Bethany) despite vigorous resistance, or be subject to gradual transformation. Anyone can exploit the humanities for personal enlightenment and intelligent public discourse. However, except for handfuls of professors and researchers, focusing undergraduate collegiate study on esoteric philosophical or literary nuance (never mind manufactured agitation) seems a wasteful expenditure of human capital that would be better devoted to advancing STEM.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Harvey Mansfield as a professor of law instead of government and located Patrick Deneen at Georgetown instead of currently at Notre Dame. These have been corrected.