As thousands of students decide upon the next move of their academic lives, there has been a propensity to discourage students from pursuing the liberal arts.
Especially in the era of big data, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) take precedence over all else in higher education. This focus does produce a well-trained work force, while also enabling innovation and productivity which provides tangible results and benefits.
Meanwhile, the liberal arts are left to sulk in the shadows, and at the worst being deemed relatively worthless. What is someone with a degree in English literature going to do with it, besides teach; right?
This inclination to push fresh high school graduates towards STEM is especially driven by a world riddled with problems to be solved, ranging from climate change to resource scarcity and evolving threats to our species. Technical studies in the sciences are admirable pursuits which will give us more doctors, scientists and engineers, people on whose shoulders the future will be built, and on whom we’ll depend on to grasp a better understanding of the universe.
But as we harp on the aforesaid admirable pursuits, it would be dangerous to discourage those who would like to do other things—students who would rather study history, language, politics, society, the creative and performance arts etc. Doing so would be a disservice to the present and the future.
Strictly speaking, the liberal arts are not vocational subjects. But the importance of a humanistic education to shaping democratic citizens and productive employees cannot be undervalued, especially in a world where authoritarians and fundamentalists are promoting a rigid society.
To those who turn their noses up at the humanities, these subjects seem to produce nothing but irritable unemployables fluent in sophistry and subversion—an erroneous and dangerous notion. This was certainly a model against which emancipation movements in the last two centuries rebelled against. And through these rebellions within their academic circles has emerged a democratic tradition of self-improvement.
Humanistic education provides clear though, questions long held notions and subverts authority; the same as the sciences do. They help people to think about their own societies, and to engage with what has been thought before; it can make for better citizens as well as a better people; and in the process create art, literature, music and discourse.
As recent high school graduates now make their choices, let us not make their higher education merely a servant of the markets. Also, let us reject political rhetoric from state authorities that praise subjects which generate ‘immediate returns’ and recognize such talk as a convenient justification for their ideological drive.
Let us instead encourage students to choose their pursuits and rather harangue, harass and force those in power to establish new avenues and empower existing institutions that can employ people from all educational backgrounds.
Most importantly though, let us refrain from intellectual thuggery. In academia, many in the STEM disciplines also support a rounded education that includes literature, history, and the arts.
Universities and colleges should work to help dispel notions that look down on certain academic pursuits and instead build bridges between these different branches and recognize such a synthesis as a critical part of our discourse.
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