Over the past few decades, there has been a drive to get more students into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). In a world of private space travel, billionaire computer nerds, and ubiquitous screens, it seems obvious that only those who know how to perform complex calculations and understand the basics of the hard sciences will be able to keep up and thrive. Lucrative salaries and astronomical profits are used to tempt students and young professionals, and successful STEM entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk have become household names.
Unfortunately, the rise of STEM has come at the expense of the liberal arts. It is apparently not enough to offer pathways to potential engineers and scientists and encourage them in their pursuits—those who want to continue their liberal arts education are frequently derided for selecting a worthless pursuit. According to the prevailing wisdom, humanities students are dooming themselves to lives as overqualified baristas, or worse, public school teachers. The collective anxiety produced by globalization and the rise of China has led conservative and progressive writers alike to express concern that China is graduating many more engineers than America. They worry that Americans are too incompetent to build or manufacture anything, let alone make new discoveries or innovate technologically.
This growing sense of alarm is usually accompanied by images of Chinese engineers diligently supervising massive microchip factories while pampered millennials bicker on TikTok about how many genders can dance on the head of a pin. These debates recall H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel, The Time Machine, in which humanity evolved into two races: the hardworking but unrefined Morlocks who labored underground and the privileged yet vulnerable Eloi who idled away their time above. If Americans don’t get their act together, these critics fret, China will soon overtake them just as the Morlocks started to overtake the Eloi.
But what if we have this all backwards? What if the singular focus on STEM, and the corresponding denigration of the liberal arts, is actually detrimental to America? What if emphasizing the liberal arts rather than STEM will benefit Americans and American national prosperity far more in both the short and long term? I don’t say this as an English teacher who harbors an inferiority complex, but as a person who has worked in this system his whole life. The push for STEM began when I was a student in the Advanced Placement bubble of a Dallas public school. Because the school received incentives from the state designed to encourage AP course enrollment, I was essentially forced to take all the AP math and science classes that the school offered.
At the time, I resented this because the classes were quite hard and fell well outside my immediate interests. Soon afterward, I was required to take more math and science classes in college. Even though I eventually graduated with a humanities degree, I somehow ended up taking calculus twice, physics three times, and a slew of other college-level science classes. While I can better appreciate now the skills and discipline I developed in my many math and science courses, I still wonder if all that time and effort would have been better spent cultivating my thinking and writing.
I only became a serious reader when I started college, and only figured out the rules for composition by the end of it—and almost all of this was due to influences outside of school. Nevertheless, when I became a teacher, I continued to defer to STEM because everyone else did. Few would argue that basic literacy is dispensable, but the teachers who taught math and science were thought to be the real heroes. After all, most campuses prioritized them as “high-need,” and all the serious students enrolled in these classes.
This mindset was reinforced by some of the books on education I read. I can recall nodding along to The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley and Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu, which described the apparently superior education systems in China and South Korea. While Chinese and Korean students crushed the PISA tests, American students floundered behind developing countries in spite of the amount of government money invested in schools. Although this probably has more to do with how the PISA test is administered and how schools are organized in each country, Ripley, Chu, and other education experts insist that it is mainly the product of superior advanced math instruction. Simply push kids harder in math and the rest will follow.
But this simply isn’t the case. Heavier loads of math and science have not produced more competent graduates, better prepared to enter the workforce. On the contrary, students today are just as unprepared to handle the vicissitudes of today’s economy as before, if not more so. A handful may go on to make billions designing a new smartphone app, but a large portion will go on to work in non-STEM fields, regretting how little they learned at school.
I've seen this pattern repeatedly during my years as an AP Language and Composition teacher. I would work with the best and brightest juniors heading into college, many of whom would put in late nights doing their homework for pre-calculus and physics. As the year progressed, most of them grew to appreciate what they learned in my class over their STEM classes. This wasn’t because I’m a particularly charismatic teacher (I’m not), but because I always made the case for the liberal arts. If they wanted to get a job, find a date, and not elect a vicious dictator, my class would help them.
Those students who exerted themselves and embraced humanities classes would prosper and live their best lives. Those who blew off my class, and insisted that they were “math people” destined to become wealthy doctors and engineers, often struggled. They might have had hard skills in the hard sciences, but that hardness made them inflexible in a rapidly changing environment. Those who reject the liberal arts never learn how to be independent. Almost by necessity, they adopt what Friedrich Nietzsche termed a “slave morality”—they need a master to employ them, lead them, and think for them. They don’t create, they merely operate in what’s already been created. In many ways, this is easier than continually asking difficult questions and developing complex answers.
Nations that exclusively prioritize STEM end up with unimaginative, conformist cultures led by unimaginative, conformist oligarchs. They may be materially wealthier, but they are also morally and spiritually impoverished. The impulses to participate, contemplate, innovate, create, celebrate, or procreate are smothered by an illiberal education that turns human beings into human capital. Eliminating the liberal arts leads to mass self-objectification. As Arthur Brooks explains his new book From Strength to Strength, adults run into personal crises because they see themselves not as autonomous human beings but as workers fed through an impersonal machine that sorts them by their output. When a person grows older and his output necessarily decreases, he lacks the capacity to see himself as anything more than an object experiencing obsolescence.
Not only is this profoundly depressing, but it’s also untrue. In exploring the many dimensions of humanity and tapping a multitude of intellectual and interpersonal habits, the liberal arts liberate students from this tendency towards self-objectification because we are much more than the sum total of our knowledge and skills. This is not to say that the liberal arts merely offer therapy that can help people get in touch with their feelings. A person who fully realizes their own humanity can also live a better life based on reason and virtue rather than market forces, government mandates, or societal customs. On the whole, he is both happier and more productive than the person who can only follow directions.
Of course, these advantages depend on the quality of the liberal arts program. All too often, liberal arts classes become blow-offs in which students learn how to be pretentious and apply bogus postmodern theories to bogus creations. A class I took in college epitomized this mindset. We were asked to select a movie or television series (I picked the movie Napoleon Dynamite) and apply a series of “critical lenses” to its analysis—race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Beyond mastering the fine art of bullshitting, I gained very little from that course.
The case for re-emphasizing the liberal arts must be coupled with a case for restoring objective standards. If students aren’t constantly reading and writing, their arguments won’t hold water and they won’t cultivate intellectual discipline. The benefits of the liberal arts will then vanish no matter how enthusiastic people feel about them. Standardized assessments can be surprisingly effective at restoring rigor. As I've argued elsewhere, if something isn't tested, it isn’t taught.
In the liberal arts, students do most of their learning for SAT and AP exams because this is the only time they’re really tested. In college and beyond, there is little to no testing and professors are incentivized to go easy on students. STEM courses, on the other hand, regularly test students, and most jobs in STEM involve periodic tests of competency. If liberal arts programs are to be taken seriously, this gap in assessment needs to be bridged.
A student trained in the liberal arts is much better suited for training in STEM than vice versa. Most great scientists and inventors have some background in the liberal arts. In his essay on how to boost creativity in young people, writer Adam Grant writes, “Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience.” Specialists unable to see the world from different perspectives or consider the relevance of their subject matter are ultimately limited and thus dispensable.
So, as a society, what would we rather have? A population that can calculate the area under the curve, be “Google certified,” and identify the parts of the cell, or a population that can evaluate the merits of a work of art, apply basic logic, and identify the main distinctions between different schools of philosophy? Which would make for a more prosperous and harmonious community? Which has already led us to an atomized collective caught in cultural stagnation?
Along with the rest of my generation, I have lived through a STEM-struck culture, and I believe the answer to questions like these is obvious. It may sound paradoxical, but if Western nations and their citizens want to succeed in an increasingly scientific, technology-driven world, they need to preserve and empower their humanity. That means educating their people in the liberal arts first and foremost.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/04/29/the-liberal-arts-are-the-future/