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Pesky Liberal Education Goals

Pesky Liberal Education Goals

I’ve written before about my concern over the orchestrated emphasis on the STEM or STEM-H fields. Understandable concern for American deficiencies in STEM recruits plus the desire to link education directly with first jobs generates an arguably disproportionate focus on STEM, including, in some cases, favored funding. I actually agree with expanding STEM enrollments, but I do worry about slighting not only other disciplines, but other components of even a sensible STEM education. Increasingly, a number of STEM specialists are themselves agreeing, contending that we still need to be concerned about good overall education and analytical skills, and not just certain specializations. (Among other things, not a few non-STEM majors end up in more advanced STEM training; it’s not possible to orchestrate undergraduate education with machine-like precision.)

At risk of belaboring, this column is about a new, though potentially related, challenge: that in the rush to experiment with new methods of educational delivery and cost-cutting, crucial humanities and social science disciplines will be disfavored — again to the disadvantage of overall educational goals.

Not surprisingly, virtually all of the major efforts in Open Source education or the establishment of competency badges have featured science and technology, occasionally with a bit of management thrown in. This reflects the current importance of these areas on the job front. But it also may reflect the fact that some of these disciplines lend themselves to mass online classes and machine-graded assessments than is true with the “liberal arts” — where, among other things, the ability to write and build arguments plays such a vital role. Some of us old-timers spent the early part of our careers fighting against multiple choice testing and pure factual recall, and with all my openness to innovation I simply can’t believe that our goals have been invalidated.

So, in my view, we have a dual challenge. First, we need to convince educational reformers that their vision should not narrow, that we still need strong higher education components (both in general education and in available majors) devoted to the study of humankind and human society, beyond biological basics. I’m sure our pleas sound whiney sometimes, but they really are fundamentally valid.

But second, those of us in the relevant fields, like history, do need to experiment with teaching innovations and assessment mechanisms that maintain fundamental goals, but with an openness to experimentation. Ideally, we can even seek some resource crumbs to help us in this vital effort.