Narrow STEM Focus? Broad-Based Learning is Better

By Fareed Zakaria, The Washington Post, 3/26/15

Steve Jobs: “Technology married with liberal arts makes our hearts sing.”

Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities, or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, math) and deemphasize the humanities. From President Obama on down, public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today’s world. Republicans want to go several steps further and defund these kinds of majors…. America’s last bipartisan cause is this: A liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward….

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however…puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings….

Asian educational systems…are oriented around memorization and test-taking…. That’s not conducive to thinking, problem solving or creativity…. Most Asian countries, from Singapore to South Korea to India, are trying to add features of a liberal education to their systems. Jack Ma, founder of China’s Internet behemoth Alibaba, recently hypothesized in a speech that [China’s education system] does not nourish a student’s complete intelligence, allowing her to range freely, experiment and enjoy herself while learning: “Many painters learn by having fun, many works [of art and literature] are the products of having fun. So, our entrepreneurs need to learn how to have fun, too.”

No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think, and even write. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (and owner of this newspaper), insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages, and begins senior-management meetings with a period of quiet time, sometimes as long as 30 minutes, while everyone reads the “narratives” to themselves and makes notes on them….

Companies often prefer strong basics to narrow expertise. Andrew Benett, a management consultant, surveyed 100 business leaders and found that 84 of them said they would rather hire smart, passionate people, even if they didn’t have the exact skills their companies needed….

You can make a sneaker equally well in many parts of the world, but you can’t sell it for $300 unless you’ve built a story around it. The same is true for cars, clothes and coffee…. Or consider America’s vast entertainment industry, built around stories, songs, design and creativity. All of this requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum….

In 2013, two Oxford scholars conducted a study on employment and found that, for workers to avoid the computerization of their jobs, “they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”

This doesn’t in any way detract from the need for training in technology, but it does suggest that as we work with computers (which is really the future of all work), the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human…. And for those jobs…you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition….

Fareed Zakaria is a Post columnist, host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” and author of In Defense of a Liberal Education.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-stem-wont-make-us-successful/2015/03/26/5f4604f2-d2a5-11e4-ab77-9646eea6a4c7_story.html

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