In this digital age, must liberal arts still compete with science and tech? Re-thinking education in today’s blog posting

Readers of this blog will know that I value liberal arts education (including my own), especially in this hyper-digital age, for providing skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration or adaptability. These skills, over time, often yield valuable careers and meaningful lives. I have not aimed to be original when arguing (in previous postings and newsletters) that the arts can become more valuable than popular technical skills which quickly grow obsolete. Liberal arts focus on developing the whole person, which is a much  deeper and broader process than job-specific training.

This is not, of course, to knock the unquestionable value of STEM majors (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to our collective communities. Recent start-up presentations I witnessed at last week’s “Co.mmunity” Tech competition, at the Co.Lab start-up incubator (U of S) demonstrated just how many creative innovations the local computer science industry is spawning and how much support they receive! But “old school” wisdom has often said that STEM graduates have better job prospects and higher earning potential for life than peers who choose the liberal arts.

In a recent article in The New York Times, called “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure,” David Deming, director of Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, reminds us that “the long-term story is more complicated” than just one field, and its earning potential, pitted against another. The advantage that STEM majors hold, “fades steadily after their first jobs,” so that “by age 40 the earnings of people who majored in fields like social science or history have caught up.”

The difference is not black and white: most universities require STEM students to take some liberal arts courses, although as an editor, I often encounter students in applied fields who late in their degrees still do not appreciate how to write a basic essay. In a better world, the U of S Writing Help Centre would receive sufficient funding to employ more tutors to teach students across all fields (and degrees) how to write.

Deming observes that there are two reasons that liberal arts graduates catch up and may even surpass their STEM peers: First, technical skills develop rapidly and become obsolete quickly, so that “skill obsolescence and increased competition from younger graduates work together to lower the earnings advantage for STEM degree-holders, as they age.” Secondly, liberal arts graduates develop careers in which they apply their abstract thinking.

Such “soft skills,” such as problem solving and critical thinking, can have long-term value in many careers. While it’s true, especially on the Prairies, that poetry doesn’t “pay the bills,” liberal arts majors turn to entrepreneurship, management and business occupations, as well as taking advanced degrees, like law. Abstract thinking that students develop by reading literature, philosophy, history and anthropology, are essential to such fields.

In my passion to read and write more about the psychology of marketing and entrepreneurial wellness, as exemplified by some of the best TEDtalks online and by innovative publications by geniuses like Seth Godin, I agree with Deming that we must resist contemporary pressure to make university and college curricula too technical or job focused. We should seek knowledge, not “information.” And as some experts like (Sir) Ken Robinson (whose TEDTalks are profound) have been saying for years, we need to step back further and not insist upon university- and college-based education for all students.

Last Monday, mentor Monica Kreuger (CEO of Praxis School of Entrepreneurship) spoke of work she is doing with a “Re-Imagine Education Reference Committee” in Saskatchewan to bring change to the public primary and secondary education system. There are so many ways over the past 30+ years that the system has failed, and continues to fail, students. Sometimes it has been an approach to book learning that has inflicted suffering–or an atmosphere that was hostile to student growth.

Certainly, for those who do attend university, today’s degrees should include both the arts and some classes in the STEM disciplines. But what those courses include, how they’re structured and taught should continue to change and adapt.  It’s heartening to read the statistics that arts-based graduates come into their own, salary-wise, over time; but this does not address the lost potential of students who fall through the cracks. (For example, think of the singer Joni Mitchell, who failed in Algebra during high school in Saskatoon. And what about those who also failed but never found her stardom?)

As we face the future, we need to think more broadly of what education at all levels looks like and how, as Deming writes, “a four-year college degree should prepare students for the next 40 years of working life, and for a future that none of us can imagine.”

And now it’s your turn: Do you have an education in the liberal arts (including social sciences) or in a STEM field? What value have you found, in it? And how do you think we need to re-think education, at every level?

Please weigh in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.