Modern society is very technological. Liberal Arts as a style of post-secondary education was created in an era when today’s sophistication was barely even imagined. The concept of a well-rounded education that is exemplified in the typical Liberal Arts driven General Education requirements of most institution is still relevant. However the time has come to reimagine the concept of a modern university education. Perhaps it is time to make STEM courses the General Education and leave typical Liberal Arts studies to their specific majors. Today’s workers are surrounded by technology no matter what they do for a living. A greater understanding of this technology is a must. The amount of technology used by your average consumer, both adult and child, typically exceeds the technological sophistication of your average university environment. Are Liberal Arts still relevant in this modern society? There are lessons that come from Liberal Arts curriculum that are universal in nature. They apply across all disciplines as well as every job or career. The education provided by a Liberal Arts Core is necessary for all STEM majors.
The modern level of consumer technology is doubling every 2 years in accordance to Moore’s Law of transistor counts. Without a strong effort to retain a Liberal Arts Core to every degree, Liberal Arts classes are in danger of being pushed out. A bachelor’s degree is a four year (8 semester) degree. The typical STEM degree class load already has these 8 semesters fully populated with a mix of a majority STEM courses and Liberal Arts courses. As technology grows the complexity of a STEM degree grows. There is strong risk or natural tendency that Liberal Arts course be replaced by more technological course for the STEM degree to keep pace. This naturally leads to the question of why keep Liberal Arts courses at all.
Technology in the workplace is ubiquitous. There are few job categories that are free from the need of using high technology as part of the job. But is it absolutely necessary to sacrifice the fields of culture, art, natural sciences and all the other areas that a Liberal Arts Core provides to a student’s education to teach skills that can just as easily be picked up in on-the-job training? According to Edward J. Ray, president of Oregon State University, “More than 9 in 10 want those they hire to demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.” (Ray). Ray also says that there are skills that are a result of Liberal Arts that are more valuable to an employer than specific vocational skills such as a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems.
A child’s introduction to technology begins at an earlier and earlier age. Toddlers are using tablets in ways that were the stuff of science fiction just a decade ago. Like most other universal technologies, such as automobiles, telephone and television, it is quite possible to use them to great effect without having any formal training. So goes the march of technology since the dawn of time. While STEM majors are absolutely necessary to participate in the design, creation, advancement and exploitation of technology, they are not necessary for its effective use. Most technology, consumer at least, is built to the environment of the non-technical user by design. STEM major must resist the urge to replace their Liberal Arts components with more coursework in technology as technology is the easiest component to acquire outside of the degree.
The current concept of Liberal Arts education is based on the concept of a well-rounded education that has its roots in classical education. Carol Christ says that: “The humanities are important to the sciences not because they produce more cultured people, but because they produce better scientists.” It is a common belief that the United States is losing ground in the fields of science and technology. We are simply not creating enough new scientists as we should in this high tech world. The scientist that we do create should be the best that we can create. The well-rounded educated person does better at what she/he specializes in because they can do their work within a cultural framework. Christ goes on to say that: “Flexibility, creativity, critical thinking, and strong communication skills (particularly writing) are at the core of liberal arts education and critical to success today and in the future.” This reinforces the need for STEM majors to have good grounding in Liberal Arts as scientists need the same skills as humanists to cut through misleading observations and arrive at a defensible interpretation. (Christ)
It may be the time to reverse STEM and Liberal Arts requirements in the typical undergraduate degree. It could be argued that STEM courses are the modern education and Liberal Arts schools need to adapt to a STEM world. From the time of Plato to the Industrial revolution Liberal Arts only education advanced the world only so far. From the mid-eighteenth century to today the world has advanced at far greater pace than all of the previous twenty-four hundred years combined. The great concepts of classical philosophy peaked when they came to the realization that the earth was not the center of the universe. The rest of technology is a function of advancements in science and engineering based largely on mathematics. Perhaps it is time for STEM courses to be the General Education core requirements for all degrees and Liberal Arts courses are restricted to their specific majors. The modern well-rounded student has a need for a broad education in math, engineering and science more than he or she needs mandatory coursework in the arts. We need more technicians and scientists, not less, if we are to remain competitive in this modern society. Let’s make STEM the modern general education from kindergarten through Bachelor level.
The value of a Liberal Arts education exceeds the utilitarian need of more technicians. Technology is tailored to the non-technical user and always will be. Graduates of liberal arts colleges earn doctorates in the sciences at nearly twice the rate of graduates of other institutions. (Christ) The education system must resist the urge to squeeze out Liberal Arts for the need of expanding STEM courses. There is a difference between being educated and being trained. The vocational /technical colleges exist for this difference. If you only want training in a field, there are technology only degree options that are available. However, what they create is a specialist rather than an educated person. Mark I. McNutt in his essay says that: “employers readily identify the creative, communicative and problem-solving acumen traditionally associated with liberal arts majors as the most valuable attributes of new hires.” These skills and others like them will never be no longer needed in our society, not now nor in the future. Liberal Arts core is still the best way to ensure that future graduates be not only technically competent in their field but also be flexible, creative and critical thinking professionals.