Blog Post

Why STEM Alone Is Not Enough (We Need the Humanities and Arts Too!): Washington Post

In today's Washington Post, three of us, all members of the National Council on the Humanities, have written a guest blog in Valerie Strauss's education blog, called "Why STEM Is Not Enough (and we still need the humanities)" by Cathy N. Davidson, Paula Duffy, and Martha Wagner Weinberg.    Here's the url:


In that piece, we also cite a paper given by Hunter Rawlings III, the President of the American Association of Universities, at last week's DeLange Conference on The Future of Higher Education at Rice University:   #  .   Besides my own keynote at DeLange,  the roster included an imposing number of presidents, mostly engineers and scientists.  That list  included James Duderstadt (former President of the University of Michigan), Amy Gutmann (President of the University of Pennsylvania), John Seely Brown (former Director of the legendary Xerox PARC and, like me, an education rebel and innovator), Charles M. Vest (former President of MIT), Rober Zemsky (University of Pennsylvania), Rita R. Colwell (former Director of NSF), and Burton McMurtry (former head of Trustees of Stanford University and famed technology venture capitalist).   That's quite a list!   Immediately following the DeLange Conference, a number of the speakers were part of a joint meeting at Rice with the National Academy of Engineering meeting:  "Engineering for Impact:  Effecting Sustainable Change in the Develloping World."


What was fascinating is that all at the DeLange meeting made comments that would reaffirm what Paula, Martha, and I wrote in our Washington Post op ed about how the humanities and the arts--as well as the social sciences--are essential to STEM as well.   What matters now is making learning tied to problem solving, critical thinking, imaginative sense-making, creativity, true research, and engaged peer-inspired thinking.    That turned out to be the message shared across the most radical educational reformers (myself and JSB) and the most profoundly, powerfully engaged academics and leaders there.  All underscored the importance of restructuring undergraduate education, of supporting (yes, that means you Governors and legislators too!) higher education.   Several pointed to the appallingly high drop out rate of college students, the number of students who enter college wanting to do science and who then switch into the business-oriented social sciences or who simply disappear from higher education in general.  It is nearly as major a crisis as the high school drop out rate in the U.S.  


JSB and I added that one reason for this is that introductory basic science is typically taught in huge cavernous lecture halls with droning lecturers and multiple choice tests graded by TA's and with a goal of flunking students out, not inspiring them to be scientists.  The science taught is typically by rote, not geared to real research, real problems, or to peer learning that inspires creative thinking.   In other words, we can hardly wring our hands about a national crisis in college students dropping out of STEM fields when their first introduction to university-level science is designed to (duh) flunk them out of science!  It is also designed to be a dis-incentive to real learning and, as JSB and I would argue, could not be more harmful to a longer-range goal of making citizens who then go on to want to support education with their taxes because they understand its absolute value to democracy and the quality of life.   Design a cynical educational system and, guess what?:  you make cynics who see no need to support education. 


But, I emphasize, JSB and I represent the most radical approaches to educational reform, and not all of our colleagues at that meeting would go as far as we would in wanting to flip, upend, reverse engineer all of education (K through lifelong learning) today.  So let me return to what we all shared:  Even without this more urgent language, everyone at DeLange would say you cannot divorce science from the human, social, and artistic and produce good science or good scientists.   And all argued that engaged research, from the very beginning, is essential to learning.

If you would like to read a pdf of the paper by Hunter Rawlings that makes the claim that a higher percentage of students attending the "Oberlin 80" consortium of liberal arts colleges go on to STEM graduate and professional schools than do students at the major research universities, you can find it here: "The Biggest Problem Confronting Universities Is Not What You Think It Is":


For Rawlings--and for all of the speakers at DeLange, and for my National Humanities Council colleagues and me--the fatal flaw confronting universities is thinking learning can be disconnected, atomized, divorced from real life--whether STEM or humanities or arts.   Learning needs to reach in deep, to inspire, and to connect us to what means most in our lives.    It's time to think about that, to think about what learning is and what learning needs.  Now. 





Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, [NYSI cover]







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