For students nowadays, major choice is all about where the money’s at.
STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education has been taking the country by storm and its influence is having an impact at Seattle University and its faculty as well.
Both the media and universities countrywide have been offering more airtime and more financial support to STEM programs.
The popularity of STEM fields has grown since President Obama’s launch of the “Educate to Innovate” campaign in Nov. 2009.
The goal of the campaign is for American students to emerge as leaders excelling in fields of science and mathematics. For many, the increasingly bleak job market makes the pursuit of STEM fields synonymous with success.
Universities across the U.S. have been feeling the push for STEM emphasis, including Stanford University, where 45 percent of the faculty in the undergraduate school specialize in the humanities – a field serving only 15 percent of the student body, according to a recent New York Times article.
The article also cited evidence of a declining interest in the humanities: Harvard University has had a 20 percent decline in humanities education over the past decade. Edinboro University of Pennsylvania has closed the doors on several degree programs such as German, philosophy, and world languages and culture.
Some years ago, The Spectator released documents establishing that professors in the humanities were receiving significantly less compensation than their STEM and business peers. In addition, the university declared last year that the construction of a new science complex was a top priority.
Some say those who have made their careers educating students in non-STEM disciplines are pushed aside in favor of their STEM colleagues.
Theater professor Ki Gottberg said she feels marginalized as a professor – not by STEM, but by “the constant drumbeat of marketability” that seems to be influencing education a little bit too strongly.
“The Jesuit mission is to educate the whole person and it definitely involves the imagination,” Gottberg said of the importance of humanities education.
Gottberg thinks the push for STEM emphasis is somewhat of a fad, and that “universities are casting around to find marketable ideas to get more students,” and students are getting nervous thanks to the sluggish economy and unstable job market.
That “drumbeat of marketability” has had consequences for other professors as well: many now find themselves in the position of defending the validity of their particular discipline.
English Department Chair Maria Bullon-Fernandez argued that the humanities aid students in developing empathy, communication and creativity. Most of all, the humanities teach students about what it means to be human and understanding other human beings.
“Science becomes very dangerous if the human is forgotten,” Bullon-Fernandez said.
Philosophy professor David Madsen also expressed disappointment in the anti-humanities slant of the new core.
“Any students who graduate with a college degree who could have earned that degree without a history or literature course hasn’t really gotten a broadly based education,” Madsen said.
He added that any graduate who leaves school without intelligible and persuasive communication skills have been “ripped off” because those are skills that are necessary in the real world.
“A lot of jobs that people are going to earn an income in don’t even exist yet,” Madsen said.
Matteo Ricci College dean Jodi Kelly adopted a less adversarial tone.
“Humanities professors are delighted by STEM education, just as they are by all education. What might not be understood as well as it could be is that various disciplines in education should not be put into an either/or dichotomy,” said Kelly in her email.
Madsen speculates that the excitement over STEM education comes from a focus on getting the country back to work, since the relationship between STEM disciplines and identifiable careers is clearer.
“If [universities are] going to charge the dollars that they are going to charge in order to fund the programs that they choose to fund, they’re going to have to pay a little more attention to the correlation between the education they offer and the job market outside,” Madsen said. “You don’t want to come out waiting tables until ‘the golden door’ opens.”
These days, students are looking for an open door straight to the job market, which STEM education more readily provides.
In addition, many universities heavily rely on their alumni to fund programs and the quantifiable success rate of STEM graduates allows them to sleep easier at night, knowing alumni will be reaping enough income to support their alma mater.
“It’s harder for the humanities to speak in the language that donors and funders do,” Madsen said.
And if the humanities were ever to become completely shoved aside, Kelly wrote, “God help us all.”