Invest in STEM or in Humanities? Perils of a false dichotomy

Thomas Friedman is writing in ‘New Rules’, a widely quoted article recently published by The New York Times “It’s fascinating to read about all this while visiting Shanghai, whose public school system in 2010 beat the rest of the world in math, science and reading in the global PISA exam of 15-year-olds.” Shanghai is used here as en example for America to invest more in “vocational-training classes” to follow an instrumental model where education is preparing workers to take the “new jobs”. It happens that I also visited recently Shanghai, the source of fascination and admiration for so many Westerners, and the most impressive part of my experience there was the ubiquitous sense of mutual distrust and absence of civic values and behaviors in the public life.

I am a curious traveler and I take the risk to explore non-touristic areas of cities and places I visit. I seek all possible opportunities to experience what locals experience every day. I am not interested to see what a tourist in invited to see. Using public transport is an important part of Shanghai’s realities and here you see how many locals have troubles to read maps and even letters. Not Western letters, of course, but Chinese. It is also surprising to see the dynamic of daily travelers who seem to be very motivated in this secret competition to take a seat in the train or bus and push each other violently to be the first. I often noticed that a pregnant woman was among the last in the train and I wasn’t able to see anyone offering a seat. Civic culture is just disastrous.

Spitting – basically everywhere – making grotesque noises, pushing to make way to unknown important destinations, the complete absence of smiles or friendly conduct and the obsessive impulse to install metal bars over windows, and too many fences and padlocks in a country where crime rate is very low left me feeling that that this immense city got the worst from both systems, communism and capitalism. I also had discussions with some tourists and I remember the dull expression on the face of a European visitor saying how wonderful is this city. I guess is easy to be confused if you are the tourist interested just to take a break. It may be even easier to be confused if you are at the center of interest of those who invited you in Shanghai, knowing that you will write a nice op-ed in one of the most important newspapers in the world.

Having the benefit of a very different status and using the curse to be curious and uneasy with simple and (too) obvious answers I have a different reading of Shanghai. This may be an excellent city to study mathematics, but what I have seen is very far from the image of a new center for learning and enlightenment. I admire Chinese culture, but I wasn’t able to see much left in Shanghai this year. Here is my problem: Shanghai, “whose public school system in 2010 beat the rest of the world in math, science and reading” in the new global “learning games” is not benefiting much from this admirable position in the everyday life of the city. Something is missing there, and it may be.. a genuine civic culture.

Friedman article came as I received a petition that may be very important for Australia, the place where I currently live: “On September 11 the New South Wales government announced that it would stop funding art education in TAFE (vocational education), leaving 4000 students without access to finishing their courses in 2013. TAFE Art courses are the main provider of art education in NSW, with many prominent artists getting their first ‘hands on’ training in TAFE. The withdrawal of funding will mean that only the wealthy will be able to afford private art education and NSW will suddenly find it no longer has emerging artists with skills coming through.”

This is speaking about the current fashionable fixation to favor mathematics, engineering and sciences against liberal arts. I think this is both wrong and dangerous.

Looking at mathematics and engineering as a top priority for education is nothing new. As it is not new at all to see in an era of aggressive anti-intellectualism a hierarchy of funding where humanities have the lower places. Public investment in humanities is declining fast as the criteria of productivity, efficiency, consumer satisfaction do not serve at all the perceived waste of money in these fields. It seems that STEM are now the only key for a happy and prosperous future. STEM is the most commonly used acronym for the fields of study in the categories of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. As it seems that we live a time of simplistic solutions, the bipolar oppositions are used here to make sense of this dilemma. Therefore, this complex problem is solved in very simple terms by decision makers around the world: if STEM fields are important in education, humanities are less important and funds will be allocated to what is important. There is a very dangerous logic here and – with no intention to question the importance of STEM fields – we argue that this is presenting serious dangers for the future.

US President Obama has identified STEM education as (see President Obama’s National Educational Technology Plan 2010, Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology): “the key to America’s economic growth and prosperity and to our ability to compete in the global economy… the path to good jobs and higher earning power for Americans, necessary for our democracy to work. It fosters the cross-border, cross-cultural collaboration required to solve the most challenging problems of our time.” The problem is that we may need to admit very soon that the most challenging problems of our times are a bit more complex: science,  technology, engineering and mathematics have to be completed by civic values, ethical behavior, social and ecological responsibility. Democracy is protected by intellectual energy and critical thinking, the capacity to make informed decisions about public life and the use of these technologies. The most obvious example is that of Germany in 1940’s and no one can argue that their problem at that time was a lack of excellent engineering or poor schools of mathematics and sciences. But civic and human values were a disaster. President Obama should know that arts and humanities programs are getting the axe in many universities in US and this is a real and serious threat for democracy, as it is in many other parts of the world.

The risk of all sorts of fundamentalism is real and too obvious to be ignored. STEM alone cannot solve these challenges. If we take just few recent examples we can see why humanities can bring a vital contribution with their potential to cultivate and strengthen critical thinking, to bring a greater understanding of the world, of the “other”, of various cultures and people, as a real panacea against hate and intolerance. The simple criteria of efficiency can be dangerously twisted. For example, The Telegraph is presenting the surprising case of Hitler’s popularity in India:

“…sales of Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s autobiography and apologia for his anti-semitism, are soaring in India where business students regard the dictator as a management guru[…] Sales of the book over the last six months topped 10,000 in New Delhi alone, according to leading stores, who said it appeared to be becoming more popular with every year. Several said the surge in sales was due to demand from students who see it as a self-improvement and management strategy guide for aspiring business leaders, and who were happy to cite it as an inspiration […] Jaico Publishing House, one of the publishers in India, said it reprints a new edition of the book at least twice a year to meet growing demand.”

The stunning rise on Neo-Nazi groups in Greece in also presented in a recent and disturbing article: “Actual fascists in actual black shirts are waving swastikas and murdering ethnic minorities in Athens”. It is an unsettling story about dissolution of civic values and humanity in the heart of Europe. Socrates left as part of his invaluable legacy the need to think critically about tradition and authority, about our humanity and about what we want to stand for. This seems to be lost now in his homeland.

Why should an American politician care about those disciplines able to nurture the (almost extinct) spirit of respectful and courageous critical inquiry? One strong set of reasons is the state of civic knowledge in United States: in the the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment, more than two-thirds of all students in US scored below proficient and less than a fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.

In an excellent review of a book about the rise of far right groups in UK, The Guardian is ending an interesting article published this September by saying:

“Societies that promise equality, freedom and democracy, yet preside over massive inequalities of wealth, are breeding grounds for racism and other vicious resentments. And wherever these resentments exist, the far right will try to exploit them. The fascism of the 20s and 30s succeeded because it played on wider fears, winning the support of those who would never have thought of themselves as extremists. The Nazis used antisemitism because it already existed in German society.”

Funding only marketable skills against the complex effort to educate responsible citizens, nurture critical and independent minds capable to understand what policies mean is just dangerous in a time when we see all sorts of fundamentalisms emerging violently from Norway to Middle East, from US to Australia. We already have the seeds of hate and it is the time to use STEM in a comprehensive paradigm where humanities will place their power in the context of responsible citizenship. Humanities enhance and improve our culture. This is the crucial challenge ahead.

If we have to insist on the simplistic logic currently used and economically justify liberal arts we can ignore for a moment the fact that heretics and counter-cultural poets, philosophers, dreamers and citizens pushed the entire society to progress. We can try to follow this instrumental logic of immediate efficiency. However, even this is leading to the the importance of humanities for mathematics, science and engineering. In How the Arts Unlock the Door to Learning we find the fascinating recent example Maryland’s Bates Middle School. Here arts integration has helped raise student achievement:

“Since arts integration was first implemented at Bates, the percentage of students achieving or surpassing standards for reading has grown from 73 percent in 2009 to 81 percent in 2012, and from 62 percent to 77 percent for math during the same period, while disciplinary problems decreased 23 percent from 2009 to 2011”

Several evidence-based research studies reveal that arts significantly increase student engagement and achievement among youth from both low and high socioeconomic backgrounds. Data consistently shows that we improve results in STEM if we offer the intellectual background of humanities. This can be simply explained by the fact that we learn as humans, not like machines.

We all have ahead unprecedented challenges for our democracies and we are asked to imagine a sustainable future for our economies, societies and our planet. Education is changing fast and it is the time to work on new models for universities, able to properly answer these new demands. Obsolete blue-prints, artificial rankings and false oppositions inspired by the industrial revolution have to be redesigned. We just cannot afford a new historical nightmare.

  1. Wonderful to hear this potent ‘voice of reason’ in a world gone mad for STEM. All useless knowledge and skill unless teamed up with imagination, critical thought and proper ethical human values.


    • Thanks for your generous feedback. Very much appreciated!


  2. I teach college chemistry and have always wondered why we are so anal in demanding (at least in the lower division years) the need to parse materials into black and white categories like ‘writing’ ‘chemistry’ ‘math’ ‘literature’ ‘philosophy’ etc. Why can’t the curriculum for example have intensive writing requirements in the freshman chemistry program or economics in the history class or math in the literature class? And this approach extends to K-12 also where again there seems to me no need to have separate classes on each ‘subject;’ but instead teaching or emphasizing through themes or modules ALL subjects. Socrates wasn’t a math teacher or english (greek?) teacher, etc, but a well educated mentor/facilitator able to address all subjects (sidebar: I’m not asking that English teachers take calculus or Chemistry teachers have a Pulitzer Prize…although that WOULD be an interesting series of courses!)


  3. I agree that the humanities faces a withering on the vine (if not outright chopping from the vine) in the face of well-intentioned STEM initiatives. As worrisome the text may be, the sheer size of the population in Mumbai in particular and India in general, the numbers cited by the Telegraph article for publishing Mein Kampf is arguably insignificant, and so I’d discount that part of your line of thinking. Mein Kampf will always have a combination of curious readers and avid followers, but the instances cited in the article do not rise to a social movement of consequence in my view.


    • Thomas, you have an interesting point here. I have to note that the argument of limited numbers of fundamentalists and extremists is troubling. There is an unfortunate history of this excuse and I am sure you know this. If you take the current example of Greece: just years ago Europeans looked at the worrying signs with detachment and denial and now you have an elected political party with the idea to plant landmines at borders and “remove” all immigrants. The trend is the problem, not the current number. The absence of (nurturing) civic values in the public life is leading to dangerous paths… Ultimately, the problem is not (only) Mein Kampf – it was a different argument there: that efficiency should not be the only criteria. Nazis were very efficient… and abysmally evil.


  4. Wow! So much to say, and unfortunately I am not as eloquent as Stefan. Let me start…I do not believe that any educator believes that STEM is more important than the liberal arts, but the fact is that we are graduating too many liberal arts majors who can not find a job, and not enough STEM majors where jobs are waiting unfilled. Doesn’t that suggest that we need to put more emphasis on STEM than we have in the past? (but not necessarily more than on any other area of education). Disclaimer, I have a PhD in Chemistry, teach chemistry AND am the Tech Director for a grant assisting under-served populations to be successful in STEM.But I DO NOT believe that STEM classes should replace philosophy, economics, foreign languages, sociology, etc; but they should be given equal attention for all, especially those who never thought they might be successful in STEM careers.

    Secondly, I can tell you that I am not one dimensional, but am deeply interested in the arts, literature, music, ballet, etc, and have always been, even before high school or college. In fact college turned me off to reading for awhile because of the pressure of reading and being tested in such short periods of time. Only after I went to graduate school did I again become an avid reader. And in teaching chemistry, I require my students to always write a one page summary of this weeks lab, before coming to class. A primary purpose is to force them to read the lab before they arrive, but of course a secondary purpose is for them to practice writing. And i correct/annotate their writings!

    Now let me talk about Shanghai. I have been there more than 10 times, collectively spending close to a year there. I think that you are being unfair to them. What you say is true! But do you understand where they were 50 years ago? Neighbors spying on neighbors. Workers reporting business people to the communist leaders who sent them to camps in the countryside for ‘re-education’. Some forced to wear signs in public and being spat on or worse, rocks thrown at them! Yes they are now greedy, because for the 1st time in a long time they have access to things never available to them. They don’t form single lines at the bus stop or the train station. It is each person for himself. They were forced to live that way! Only the strongest survived. The others perished! Give them time. They are and will learn the value of cooperating with their fellow countrymen and visitors….but many of them still have a long way to go.


    • Harry, thanks for your comment(s). I try to provide here a very succinct answer to your points. First, the obsessive focus on STEM against humanities is not an opinion of “any educator”. Humanities face the axe in public schools and universities to orient funding on STEM. This is beyond the rhetoric of so many politicians – it is the new line of an educational policy promoted by a certain agenda and this is too obvious to detail here.

      I truly enjoyed you balanced view on STEM and the obvious interest in literature and humanities. The thing is that education is asked to do a bit more than army of “efficient” workers… here the parallel with other experiments in history is as obvious as it can be.

      The second answer is about Shanghai and I disagree again. I think the difference is that I lived for the first part of my life (under Ceausescu) in a regime you imagine. I know too well the terror of living in a regime like that and I know too well how destructive this is for the fabric of society (and how easy is to get there as a society.) This is explains how and why I lived the revolt against the dictatorship on the streets in 1989… and maybe my focus on equity in education and democratic citizenship. However, this is not the point. Why is now the new generation in Shanghai so far from civic values if this is the model for the rest of the world (see Friedman’s article)? Just explain why their paradigm is presented to the rest of the world as the model for education when that society does not present any clear benefits from such a wonderful position in those international rankings. The other excuse is also flawed: that time you are referring is long gone for China. Under Deng Xiaoping (late 70s) that country changed profoundly and those things you present as an excuse for the present were not accepted anymore. Is this enough time to build the civil society and a sense of responsible citizenship? How long do we have to wait? Why should we all be inspired by that model? The thing is that if so “many of them still have a way to go” we should be a bit more cautious with what we find as a model and criteria for our schools. The risk to copy a system and a society where “each person is for himself” and trust is a laughable value can lead to a future liked by very few….