Liberal or STEM college education: A false choice?

Fareed Zakaria Liberal EducationCNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who has one of the most thoughtful programs on TV (CNN Sunday mornings!), has just published a new book, “In Defense of Liberal Education”.

His main fear is that the current trend away from the 4-year liberal arts college education (set in motion by the Great Recession, and rationally supported by the ballooning college price tag), will create a nation of graduates who cannot quite think, write, or speak with clarity and conviction.


The counterpoint, of course, is that the country needs engineers and scientists urgently and in numbers. So, if highschoolers keep choosing history, English, and arts majors, where will the STEM competency come from?

I completely agree with the point. And with the counterpoint. And when that happens, I know that we must not be asking the right questions…

Is the problem really that high school graduates choose liberal arts over science? Is this the reason that we don’t have STEM-competent employees in the workplace?

Or is it, that given the level of high-school math and science our students get, it is mostly impossible to get into an engineering or science major, or even, to be excited about math and physics?!

It seems to me that we have a false choice going on again: If we chose to raise the standards of math and science teaching in primary and secondary education – OK, raise them by a lot – I can see us solving both problems:

  1. Give students in grades K-12 a lot of math and science, and they will have enough technical foundation to be functional in most non-engineering jobs. I mean that, they should be able to give you change from a cash register, and to figure out which one of 1/3 or 2/5 is the larger number without a calculator… If we can make that happen, they will get rid of the paralyzing fear of “I just don’t get math”, and they will approach the next technology with more confidence and hope. Plus, they can go on to a liberal arts education, acquire great perspective, reading / writing / speaking skills, and have all-around successful careers.
  2. Give students in K-12 a lot of math and science, and you will get a lot more of them excited about it, and capable of entering and succeeding in these majors. The naturally inclined will also be able to acquire the skills to get in and get out of a technical discipline education. As it is, we are handicapping both the ones leaning technical and those leaning liberal!

So, upon reflection, it appears that if we seriously revamp math and science education in K-12, and we will get both better engineers and more confident and functional liberal arts majors! Win, win. Let’s do it?

Marina K
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