THE LIBERAL ARTS & STEM Why either/or instead of both/and?

Does this argument come down to money and profit?

Matt Bevin, Governor of Kentucky. Accessed online at

"There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than french literature majors. There just will. All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer." —Matt Bevin

By emphasizing broad preparation, the U.S. is something of an outlier, though one senses in the recent statements of some governors that they believe their public universities should only support disciplines and degree programs that contribute to economic growth and they mistakenly believe the arts and humanities do not fulfill such objectives. —Eugene Tobin

Accessed online at

“In the college area, everybody should have a sense of which of the colleges—both community and four-year institutions—are doing very well. You can even break that down by the departments. It’s actually very interesting when you take higher ed and think of it in that way. The amount of subsidization is not that well-correlated to the areas that actually create jobs in the state—that create income for the state. Now, in the past it felt fine to just say, 'OK, we’re over all going to be generous with this sector.... But in this era, to break down and really say, ‘What are the categories that help fill jobs and drive that state economy in the future?’—you’ll find that it’s not across the board in terms of everything that the state subsidizes in higher education.” —Bill Gates, February 2011, in a speech to the National Governors Association

Or does industry demand more diversified and hybridized skills?

"It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing." —Steve Jobs, March 2011, introducing the iPad 2

"Employers' demand for professionals with a liberal arts background might actually be greater than generally perceived, largely because their broader scope of knowledge and skills learned can differentiate themselves from the pool of candidates. / HR executives perceive graduates with liberal arts degrees as well-rounded candidates with characteristics that stimulate efficiency and resourcefulness. / Workers who can navigate and rethink business models using knowledge from many different disciplines, with an ability to continuously learn, are qualities in the wheelhouse of liberal arts students."

"My research team at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. We found that they tended to be highly educated: 92 percent held bachelor's degrees, and 47 percent held higher degrees. But only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just 2 percent held them in mathematics. The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, health care, arts and the humanities.

"Gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was in or the school that it was obtained from was not a significant factor.

"Over the past year, I have interviewed the founders of more than 200 Silicon Valley start-ups. The most common traits I have observed are a passion to change the world and the confidence to defy the odds and succeed."


Do we just want people to get jobs that pay a decent wage?

Or are we making STEM topics the new "practical skills" for the working class in the 21st century?

Larry Shinn notes a difference between liberal arts and liberal education, further clouding the issue.

"Liberal education (often also known as “general education,”or the part of a liberal education curriculum that is shared by all students, regardless of major) is required on most college and university campuses. It seeks to provide a broad array of intellectual and practical abilities that enable all students:

"To practice analytical thinking and communicate well in written and oral modes;

"To frame issues in historical and multicultural contexts;

"To work independently and in team settings;

"To assume both vocational and civic roles and responsibilities; and

"To apply their knowledge and skills in complex problem-solving in an evermore complex and rapidly changing world.

"These abilities and skills are the very ones that employers seek today—that is, they are “practical” skills for virtually all professions. Of the business and industry leaders who responded to a survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), 93 percent said that a college graduate they hired should have a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems—all skills provided by a good liberal education. More than nine in 10 business and community leaders stressed the importance of college graduates demonstrating ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity for continued new learning—again, core goals of a liberal education.

Illustration by Daniel Fishel for the Washington Post

Does the distinction even matter when parents won't let their children major in the liberal arts?

And what is the endgame of those who would keep us trained in executing skills but not skilled in executing critical thought?

Created By
Kristen Patterson


Created with images by _Fidelio_ - "The Thinker." • segagman - "Steve Jobs 1955-2011" • Radoslav Minchev - "Creative Playground" • StartupStockPhotos - "entrepreneur startup start-up" • Pexels - "ceremony graduates graduation"

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