By: Nadim Shehadi
Universities are today facing a balancing act, in which they need to provide a complete education that includes both professional degrees and the liberal arts, while at the same time adapting to new trends.
Universities have to stay relevant in a changing world. In response to student demand, they are investing heavily in schools of engineering, medicine and business, but at the same time positions that become vacant in the humanities and the liberal arts are not filled in a hurry. Universities are at risk of failing in their original mission to educate and are instead becoming institutions of professional training.
Meanwhile, some employers are favoring people with experience and abilities over degrees and qualifications. In Kendall Square, the epicenter of the biotech industry in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recruiters hang around Starbucks trying to poach employees because the field is progressing faster than universities can teach it. On the US’ West Coast, companies like Google are also favoring experience over qualifications in an industry set up mainly by university dropouts. Some banks will employ humanities graduates for their communications and analytical skills, but it is not the norm.
A good example of a mixed education is that of Charles Darwin, who had a firm grounding in the classics and exposure to medicine. It is an illustration of what we are losing in universities when we neglect the humanities and liberal arts to concentrate on what are labeled as STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math.
Consider the influence of a book like Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species” and his theory of evolution. This theory undoubtedly had a great impact on defining the development of ideas in the 19th and 20th centuries. It provoked discussions about the relationship between religion and science, instilled an element of doubt in religious beliefs and ensured a shift toward the sciences that shaped our world. Darwin is also one of the main reasons we now care about nature, which we see as a series of interconnected elements, and about protecting the environment. Countless movements emerged from such a view of nature.
The theory of evolution also triggered fierce theological controversies, with several schisms resulting from the still ongoing creation versus evolution debate. The Natural History Museum in London, heavily influenced by Darwinism, has a central hall fit for a cathedral and visiting children are marked for life when they enter and are immediately confronted with the spectacular skeleton of a blue whale. They are then taken through various rooms that represent the different stages of evolution, almost exactly like they would be led through the stations of the cross in a real cathedral.
Several philosophical and political movements also emerged from Darwin’s theory of evolution. The welfare state has its roots in the application of the theory of evolution to societies. It was an offshoot of Darwin’s idea that the survival of the nation depended on improving the health and living standards of its population. Amid rising nationalism, the fittest nations were thus more likely to survive and prevail; this was also behind the idea of compulsory military service.
One could go on forever about Darwin’s influence, but the main point is that it was Darwin’s classical education, including knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin texts, that gave him the breadth of mind that included critical thinking combined with creativity, as well as empathy and ethical reasoning. It was Darwin’s solid foundation in the study of the classics and his later study of medicine that helped produce one of the great ideas that shape our world.
The influence of classical authors such as Virgil, Horace and Aristotle were the foundation of his scientific theories. Particularly important was Aristotle’s ideas on natural history and “the great chain of being,” which classified and arranged living organisms in a hierarchical order within an interconnected natural order.
Today’s trend toward STEM is driven by student demand, which itself is driven by the need to find a good job after graduation. Families go into debt to give their children an education that will secure their future careers. In addition to STEM, there are professional degrees like law or business that symbolize upward social mobility.
Suburban mothers traditionally want their boys to become doctors, engineers, lawyers or businessmen and their girls to marry one of those, or vice versa. The belief is that there is no career path in the humanities: What would you do with a degree in literature or history other than become a school teacher?
Because of this increased demand, especially after the financial crisis of 2008, we have an imbalance in the development of universities in favor of STEM and professional degrees over the humanities and liberal arts.
The result is that, instead of an education that gives students the ability to think critically and the imagination to understand the context and the big picture, with its ethical, moral or even theological implications, they now tend to provide the equivalent of professional training.
The ability to think critically, to analyze and communicate ideas, to perform convincingly with charm and kindness, and to captivate and impress your interlocutor gives you power and imagination and can best be acquired through a theater performance. The analytical skills and powers of persuasion acquired from such training can serve any profession. A good novel can be life-changing and inspire a major change of worldview — it can be as disruptive and stimulating as a new scientific development.
Most importantly, the new trends in innovation and entrepreneurship require perspective and imagination, which are talents gained through the humanities and liberal arts. They are as important as the technical training required to execute projects.
While, in a technology-driven world, universities are fully justified in strengthening both STEM and professional disciplines, this should not be at the expense of providing a well-rounded education.
Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist