It’s difficult to hear a discussion of education in the United States without being reminded of the urgency of increasing students’ proficiency in ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. This, we learn, is necessary to secure their competitiveness in a technology-driven job market. What is too rarely pointed out is that a primary purpose of technological innovation is to reduce labor costs, i.e., reduce jobs. “New” technologies do not necessarily do an adequate job of replacing the jobs lost from obsolete industries.
We have been here before. During the 1950s and 1960s, besting the Soviet Union in the “space race” required thousands of well-trained engineers. That we had such individuals was a result not of STEM education campaigns, but GI-bill education benefits designed to soften the impact on unemployment by demobilized service men and women.
The National Defense Education Act of 1958 boosted college attendance from 15% to 40% in all disciplines, with results that are as interesting to social historians as to presidents of colleges and universities who have struggled to sustain the rapid campus expansions of the 1960s and 1970s.
Then, in the early 1980s, we were once again consumed by fears of national decline when faced with growing industrial powerhouses in formerly ‘foreign’ places, e.g., Japan—a fear well documented by David Halberstam’s The Reckoning (1986). The Reagan administration, only a few months into its first term, appointed a National Commission on Excellence in Education which, in August of 1981, released “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.”
The report begins: “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” Less well remembered is the report’s emphasis on disciplines other than STEM, disciplines that lie at the heart of a liberal arts education:
“Our concern, however, goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce. . . . For our country to function, citizens must be able to reach some common understandings on complex issues, often on short notice and on the basis of conflicting or incomplete evidence. . . . Indicators of the risk [include] . . . About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate [while] nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay.”
And now we have the results of a study, conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities and National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, released this week, of the education and occupation of 3 million US residents between the ages of 21 and 65. Comparing the “earnings trajectories and career pathways” of majors in the liberal arts with those from STEM and professional or pre-professional fields, the study found that not only does a college degree matter, but that “at peak earnings ages (56-60)” liberal arts majors earn on average more than those who majored in the other fields. What’s more, unemployment is lower among mature workers who were liberal arts majors.
This study, based on 2010-2011 census data, confirms what many of us have learned from experience: ordinary social skills and technical preparation may get a young adult through the gate, but they will not equip him or her to stay the course. That is because a lifetime of work and living is full of change—personal and historical. Success in living and working requires a well-furnished imagination; empathy for the many different ‘others’ with whom we will need to cooperate; a grasp of the power of aesthetic pleasure of all kinds; and a full command of at least one language enabling us to be articulate in a complete and accurate way.
These attributes come primarily from immersion in the liberal arts, a microcosm of a universe where syntax and a rich vocabulary matter not because of “correct form,” but because they build meaning, and meaning matters. A few years out of a lifetime spent in the study of good writing, be it fiction or expository prose; of social and political philosophies and systems; of aesthetics made manifest in the arts; and, most of all, of the rich storehouse of human experience captured in our history, has been demonstrated, once again, to be time well spent.