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Harsha Nahata: Find value in variety

By Harsha Nahata, Senior Editorial Page Editor
Published December 10, 2012

There's currently a disproportionate focus on particular majors, specifically science, technology, engineering and math concentrations. From President Barack Obama to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, everyone is talking about the need to produce more workers with an expertise in STEM fields for the United States to stay competitive.

While there’s a need to spur economic growth and make American workforce more globally competitive, there’s an overemphasis on STEM majors, including some of the more drastic measures placing other fields of study at an unfair disadvantage.

On Dec. 9, Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s task force on higher education proposed to keep state university tuition rates frozen for majors in “strategic areas.” In other words, students pursuing degrees in engineering or biotechnology would pay less than students pursuing degrees in history or psychology. Scott also suggested that the 28 community colleges in Florida offer certain four-year degrees for $10,000 — $3,000 cheaper than normal. Again, this discount would apply for degrees only in certain fields.

Scott argues that doing so works to satisfy market demand, considering the shortage that companies claim exists in STEM professions.

But in the drive to overcome a so-called shortage in one area, we’re downplaying the importance of other fields, namely the humanities and social sciences.

Being a social science major myself, I feel the need to reiterate the classic pitch for the humanities and social sciences. While science and math provide tangible results that can be evaluated, the humanities provide a way to understand the intangibles — a way to understand the history, culture and ideas of society. Yes, you need people inventing and calculating and programming, but that also needs to be coupled with a knowledge of where society is, where it’s going and where it has come from. Many argue that humanities are vital for the construction of successful societies and communities because they force people to critically analyze the philosophies and ideas that cultures, societies and communities are built around.

A study in the United Kingdom found that 60 percent of Britain’s leaders have degrees in the humanities, arts or social sciences. Only 15 percent have degrees in STEM subjects. These leaders include FTSE 100 CEOs, a group of leading UK firms, members of Parliament, vice chancellors of universities and lawyers.

Perhaps this comes as a surprise. But the fact is that the liberal arts are instrumental in teaching critical thinking and analysis. And in a way, while the subject matter may not translate as tangibly as knowledge gained in a biology or chemistry class, the skills taught in terms of analysis are invaluable.

This inclination to favor STEM majors touches upon the age-old dichotomy between science and math vs. humanities and social sciences. But that’s exactly the problem. There doesn’t need to be such a wide divide between the fields. Most areas of study are interconnected and add or detract from each other. By favoring one over another, it’s only creating even more of a separation between the subjects, falsely giving the idea that they are two separate entities not to be intertwined or combined.

The most valuable education is an interdisciplinary one. Believe it or not, there are things that engineers or math majors can learn from history, English or the arts. And similarly, there are essential skills that students in the humanities can gain from science or math classes. The best education is a holistic one, one that allows you to see the subject you’re studying from a variety of different lenses.

Not only that, but the inherent problem with such a policy is that it nudges students toward STEM majors whose talents and passion may lie elsewhere. By pandering solely to where the jobs are, we might be squelching people’s inner brilliance in a variety of other fields.

In this situation, I’m reminded of a quote by Howard Thurman: “Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

In the end, that’s what will make for successful economic growth. People doing what they love, what they feel passionately about, what makes them come alive — whether that’s physics or math or history or writing. The key goal of education shouldn’t be to fit people into a narrow mold of what makes the perfect job applicant, but rather to give them the skills and creativity to have a broad scale of opportunities.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu.


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