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Liberal Arts Conceit August 8, 2007

Posted by federalist in Education.

Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch (Not By Geeks Alone) strain to produce reasons why government-funded schools should not increase their focus on teaching STEM subjects (“science, technology, engineering and math”).

Worthy though these skills are, they ignore at least half of what has long been regarded as a “well rounded” education in Western civilization: literature, art, music, history, civics and geography. Indeed, a new study from the Center on Education Policy says that, since NCLB’s enactment, nearly half of U.S. school districts have reduced the time their students spend on subjects such as art and music.

Liberal arts — literature, art, music, history, civics — are not skills that require formal training and testing, nor can our politicized public schools be relied upon to teach these subjects in a constructive fashion. In contrast, reading skills along with quantitative and analytic reasoning can be both taught and measured. A student with a strong foundation in reading and analysis can pursue his own education in liberal arts without the need for further pedagogical investment by the state.

It may be true that liberal arts are “the foundation for a democratic civic polity.” But Finn and Ravitch’s conclusion that liberal arts training is critical to economic or social success would seem dated even in the 19th century.

Abandoning the liberal arts in the name of STEM alone also risks widening social divides and deepening domestic inequities. The well-to-do who understand the value of liberal learning may be the only ones able to purchase it for their children. Top private schools and a few suburban systems will stick with education broadly defined, as will elite colleges. Rich kids will study philosophy and art, music and history, while their poor peers fill in bubbles on test sheets. The lucky few will spawn the next generation of tycoons, political leaders, inventors, authors, artists and entrepreneurs. The less lucky masses will see narrower opportunities.

In this post-industrial information age the “lucky few” who pick up great pieces of literature and historical analysis in their spare time, or who indulge a hobby in art or music, will not by that reason be the next generation of tycoons, entrepreneurs, or inventors. It is those who lack proficiency in STEM subjects who are at a disadvantage in today’s world.



1. Hamilton - August 20, 2007

Literacy and culture are and have been in a decline for some time in this country. Individuals blessed by being raised in certain environments, with certain parents and resources… are exposed to the stimuli that enables them to pursue such “being need” activities and information.

Most disadvantaged children will not have the tools to care or want to care about certain “high minded” subjects.

Should a 26-year-old American male think that shrimp is a bizzare, exotic food? Should he have never heard of the movie Citizen Kane? Should he not be able to define hedonism?

Today we have baby-einstein videos starting an even earlier program of hermetically-sealed, lowest common denominator “education”. How many young persons today know more than what they see on YouTube and MTV? Some, certainly.

Obviously the STEM subjects are essential. But we need to teach children how to think about a variety of topics… how to examine and interact with the real world. Of course, as a psychologist I am biased. In my view, you can build or not build bridges. You can fly or not fly to the moon. You can solve or not solve equations. Ultimately, it is the human personality that determines everything that happens in this world.

2. federalist - January 22, 2008

Related: Joel Spolsky suggests that software development should be taught like the other Arts. I would agree that industry could use a lot more people trained in this manner. Mastering Computer Science does not necessarily make someone a good coder.

3. federalist - February 3, 2011

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