Is there too much focus on STEM? (Liberal Arts strikes back)

Today on CNN, there is an editorial from the president of Wesleyan on how focusing on STEM may be a bad thing. It is certainly interesting to see how others might view the mission that many here feel so passionately about. It’s a very interesting read.

I don’t think STEM awareness is a threat to liberal arts, and I think the fact that they might view it as such is a little silly. On the other hand, the fact that some of them view it as a threat seems like a major indicator that there is some sort of culture shift going on here… :cool:

I don’t think that is the case. I was at UNH’s graduation yesterday and the largest group graduating was the Liberal Arts students who took up a lot space when they stood up and the college of Engineering was about half their size.

He didn’t say focusing on STEM is a bad thing. He said there is a danger of STEM displacing other areas of endeavor.

In the most recent times there has been a tendency of college students to not take courses “in their field”.

Once upon a time a “liberal education” required things like language, history, music, literature, philosophy / religion, including various sciences, such as “natural philosophy” now known as physics.

In today’s world of hurrying to finish a degree in four years and declare ourselves “educated” there isn’t enough time to learn the things one should.

Engineers cannot communicate, and “liberal arts” majors are inadequately trained to understand the physical universe, which has political policy implications.

Liberal arts majors learning more STEM concepts along with STEM majors learning more ‘liberal arts’ is a good idea.

Woodie Flowers has talked to some of these concepts in his lectures to other audiences and university lectures. I will have to go back and review the video but during this year’s kickoff he had a video played that lasted maybe three minutes. It had video insertions of various mentors.

During this video he touched on a LOT of topics that are subtle and complex but was a very short explanation of becoming educated, “liberally educated !!”, understanding the universe, putting all this together. It almost reminded me of trying to create a 10 minute video where you told the history of the world.

Being a liberal arts major is a different thing indeed than being liberally educated.

Indeed, it is often frustrating (to me) to see scientists and engineers act like they’re also experts on the (equally difficult) subjects of philosophy and religion, in spite of the fact that in doing so they oft betray a child’s grasp of the subject(s).

I strongly disagree with the thought that there is too much focus on STEM. There are still high schools that won’t even give 2 cents about STEM, for example our high school only focuses on choir and our not so good sports teams. Our entire school district is ignoring a program that could possible benefit the district more than any other sports teams. We also have a huge FFA program that seems to be trying to squish out FRC. Our principle sent out an email to staff with the closing ANF, America needs farmers.

I’ll bet my last dollar that his closing never says ANE

Ed has definitely hit the nail on the head.

As a Mechanical Engineering major at UC Davis, I have 184 required units to graduate. This includes 6 General Education classes, 1 Communication class, 2 Writing classes, and the rest are set Mechanical Engineering classes.

Now, take English for example. There are 60 required units for an english major. UC Davis requires 180 to graduate, but that means 120 units can be whatever you want! There are General Ed requirements as well, but those are the same categorical 6 classes engineering students have to take. English and other similar majors take far more filler and PE classes than any engineer could. I’ve never taken a 1/2 unit PE class in my 4 years at UC Davis.

There is a reason Engineers have the most valuable degree. We’re trained specifically for the jobs we’re hired for! We aren’t well rounded in philosophy and history and english and whatever because it takes 4 years just to teach the advanced concepts that we need to know to be reasonably effective engineers.

Businesses are efficient when they hire people from various disciplines to work together. Robotics teams work best when they have a programming group, a mechanical group, a marketing group, that can work together.

Not everyone needs to know everything.

Let’s keep making Liberal Arts majors nervous about STEM education :wink:


I think the purpose of the focus on STEM in the first place is a realization that it has been left aside forlorn. FIRST is an attempt to fix that by making thousands of people recognize it through teams and competitions.

The focus on STEM to be me is to restore the balance and not eliminate the Liberal Arts. There are always consequences when you are prioritizing something over another however.

Taking these thoughts in a slightly different direction:

It would be interesting to spend a little time investigating whether it takes more than 60 credits of focused study to become an effective English bachelor’s degree graduate. Perhaps the STEM “crisis” is accompanied by a similarly important weakening of the value of a typical liberal arts education?

It’s as plain as the nose on your face that the vast majority of college graduates (engineers included) don’t know enough about English grammar and vocabulary to use both properly. Perhaps we (North America) need to ratchet up the challenges a liberal arts student must master? and thereby raise the value of a liberal arts bachelor’s degree?


There is sometimes confusion when people discuss liberal arts majors and liberal arts schools (like Wesleyan). Liberal arts schools actually produce the bulk of our scientists in America. Meaning most of the undergrad science majors who go on to get a PhD in science. (This is probably in part due to the focus of education in liberal arts schools and in larger part due to the absence of graduate students to help professors with research. Meaning undergraduate science majors at liberal arts schools get a lot more lab time and research opportunities than their counterparts at large universities.) While a liberal arts major at a big university is generally a multi-disciplinary major with lots of general coursework in a variety of fields, at a liberal arts school students have majors in various academic disciplines. I have a liberal arts degree in mathematics. It was a math major with as much or mathematics as any math major. It got me into graduate school in mathematics.

I think the thrust of his article is simply a cautionary note against thinking that throwing all of our free educational resources at STEM education in an era of declining educational resources.

Ian, thanks for brining up this article!

While I don’t fully agree with Mr. Roth’s fundamental premise, a couple paragraphs in the middle of his article match my thoughts exactly:

I just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from a private college that many (including some of the faculty) would consider a liberal arts college. I was also a participant in the Honors program, which replaced the core general education curriculum with a separate set of more intense an in-depth courses, which heavily emphasized English, history, philosophy, and so forth. The one part that wasn’t replaced? Math. The honors students still had to take plain old college algebra - except that the majority of us already had credit for it based on our SAT/ACT scores.

Partly in jest and partly serious, I brought up the question during an open forum, “Given that honors engineers have to take six writing and history intensive courses, wouldn’t it be appropriate for honors English and history majors to take calculus? [1]”

The response was predictable: “Do you want us to die?”

And that, I believe, is the problem. Math is no longer something any educated person should know; it’s a subject that only nerds and “smart people” need to learn. Everyone else avoids it like the plague, to the point that people across the country make jokes about not being good at math. That needs to change.

I’ve done enough preaching to the choir. Let’s carry on changing the culture.

[1] After hearing Arthur Benjamin, I think maybe the other majors should be required to take statistics instead.

I think it is a more serious question than jest. The non-STEM majors need to take more science and math courses. It would be be helpful to take 12 of those 60 hours and become a little more broadly educated.

And conversely, it would be helpful for the STEM majors to learn how to write.


Could you provide a reference that shows Engineers have the most valuable degree? One disadvantage is engineering degrees is that you are trained for the job you are hired for, but your job may not be a job 20 years from now nor will you want to be doing the same job your entire life. I don’t know the exact statistic but the average person changes careers like 5 times in their life. I’m a fan of liberal arts education that includes a strong math and science basis. I would rather learn how to think like an engineer, writer, psychologist, biologist than learn how to do a specific job that may not be around in 20 years.

You are trained to be an engineer. Your application of that engineering knowledge and training will change, yes. But that basic fundamental knowledge doesn’t change. You just emphasize different parts of it. This is especially true for the broad-spectrum engineering degrees–a mechanical engineer could do the same things as an aeronautical engineer with only a little bit of extra studying or practice in what needs doing. In short, a focus on the aeronautical side of things.

I have two degrees in mechanical engineering and I write software for a living. Granted, it’s software that controls mechanical systems, but the point is that you don’t have to be pigeon-holed.

Five years after graduating, very few engineers do exactly what they studied in college. Most companies find the value in an engineering degree to be more about the problem solving. Most engineers get hired into a job that is so specialized that what they learned in college is just the background material to what they’re going to learn on the job about the product they’ll be helping to design.

I’ve now been through enough turmoil through the recession to know that it’s more about having a problem solving process and mindset than it is about the mechanics of solving fluid dynamics problems (or substitute whatever engineering class you want). JVN’s paper about applying an engineering process to problem solving is really what people look for in engineers. An engineering degree teaches you (hopefully) to have the ability to solve complex problems. The actual problem that you’ll be solving doesn’t matter as much as most outsiders think.

The most important thing you learn in an engineering education is that you don’t actually know very much at all. What an engineering degree gives you is a broad base you can draw upon doing whatever you end up doing. Engineers in the workforce now went to school with slide rules… and numerical methods play an enormous role in engineering today.

As an example, one of my friends was under consideration for a job at NERF (NERF guns) and Sikorsky (helicopters) at the same time. Most of my friends have the same degree, but work in a variety of different fields (although they are decidedly airplane-centric).

I graduated (high school) from a charter school, and Calculus was a graduation requirement. You quickly find that students who excel in the language arts typically excel in math as well, even if they aren’t willing to admit it.

As someone who is just about done with his liberal arts education, one of the things that people say is good about liberal arts is how it teaches you how to think and how to solve many problems, not just the ones you learned in class. Just think its interesting how similar both approaches seem to be in that respect.

The class I feel was most important for me during college was Technical Writing. It is also one I regularly recommend to students. It matters not how much knowledge you have in a particular area, if you can’t communicate, no one will benefit from your ideas. Right up there were some classes that have opened my eyes in other areas. Business Management, marketing, metal shop & safety, and American Lit.
Of the engineering hardships facing this country in the coming years, getting our manufacturing ability back and fixing infrastructure seem to be the most daunting.

Just did a quick google search, here’s a link.


I don’t know about most folks here, but that’s the sort of thing that I learned in grade school, right around the 4th grade. Is this not typical anymore within the U.S.?

This divide between the humanities and sciences and the debate concerning their relationship and relative importance has been around for a long time. However, the discussion is no less important today. “The Two Cultures” Lecture given by Charles Percy Snow detailed this divide and the importance of addressing it.

One quote that is listed on the two cultures Wikipedia page seems applicable to the discussion.

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

Personally, I agree that everyone doesn’t need to know everything. That being said, I think it would be beneficial for scientists and engineers to have greater exposure to the humanities. Some of the best engineers in our past have been deeply inspired by the arts. On the flip side, it is critical that the general public who are not scientists and engineers have more than a superficial understanding of the scientific method. Additionally, it would be desirable that everyone have an elementary grasp of fundamental physical and natural laws. Unfortunately, this is not the case in our society and it is a problem.