Recently it seems many liberal arts colleges are turning toward the sciences. In this shift, whether fully conscious and intentional or not, higher education is turning its back to the humanities. I constantly hear about our need for “innovation” to solve our 21st century issues. In the most recent State of the Union our President spoke of rewarding schools that prepared students in science, technology, engineering, and math so they can participate in the high-tech future. While the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities published their report Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools we do not hear about STEAM in public addresses. I worry that if the arts tries to attach itself to STEM it will not win and eventually be cast aside. Even more concerning to me is the attempt to limit the humanities or to think that we can or should separate the sciences from the humanities.
A university shows its priorities in many ways, but money and physical space are two important ones. The campus of my alma mater, Brown University, has changed since I graduated. A massive new life sciences building has been created and fields like medicine and engineering have received incredible donations to expand. The new science center takes up an entire city block while almost every other department lives in small and quaint houses. As an undergrad I was conflicted when my female friends studying the sciences received thousands of dollars in scholarship aid every year; while I wanted more women leading the scientific front I also wanted more women leading political and philosophical fronts, but there was and continues to be money in the sciences. My partner is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Brown, a department that I now realize understands what it means to be marginalized perhaps as much as the arts, and his opportunities for outside funding sources have been shockingly scarce. A university’s values are impactful well beyond its gates and this is what causes me worry.
In a time of such economic anxiety, it makes sense that students want to ensure their readiness for jobs post-graduation and so it’s not surprising that a wave of professionalization is sweeping through our universities. But in turning toward STEM higher-ed seems to be forgetting that they can in fact embrace a full education that includes the humanities and the sciences. If they do not, they not only risk contributing to a population of imbalanced thinkers, but they will greatly shift the K-12 sphere, as curricular decisions will be dominated by a desire to prepare students for acceptance into schools that highly value the sciences over other disciplines.
I believe we have entered a lull in liberal arts when the benefits of a true liberal arts education are as critical as ever. We need to herald diverse content areas as necessary elements of a robust education, but also begin to see them as connected, rather than merely a buffet of disparate choices. This is not only a call to reinvigorate support for the arts and humanities, but to re-imagine the potential of a liberal arts education, as I believe there are habits of mind that can only be fostered through multi-disciplinary work in which students are deeply embedded in various ways of learning, building, communicating, and knowing. When wealthy donors approach universities with millions for a specific intent, how can we encourage higher-education to lay out a vision for the fulfillment of their charge as liberal arts institutions? What will it take for colleges (and for K-12) to take this to heart?