On May 6, 2014 New York State launched a new program that offers a tuition-free college education at State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) schools to top students who pledge to major in and pursue a career in a science or technology field (Viccaro, 2014). Also recently, Florida’s state universities proposed increasing tuition costs for “non-strategic majors” in the humanities and decreasing them for “strategic” majors with supposedly higher job prospects (Marcus, 2013). The hope is that these programs will give students incentive to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors as opposed to those in the arts, humanities, or social sciences.
The announcement of such programs accompanies a national push toward improving American STEM education in order to provide students with the skills believed to be necessary to succeed in the modern, technology-driven workforce. For years, President Barack Obama has highlighted his goal to “[prepare] students with skills for the new economy — problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math“ (Obama, 2014a). This past January, he even went so far as to say, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree” (Obama, 2014b). America’s current bias against studying in arts and humanities fields overlooks the benefits of doing so and comes from the belief that studying in a STEM field provides students with directly transferable skills for future careers.
This belief and Obama’s art history comment completely contradict past generations’ appreciation for the humanities. Forty years ago, President John F. Kennedy praised the arts in his convocation address at the ground breaking of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College. He famously said, “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft” (Kennedy, 1963). Current society does not, however, view the arts favorably, as it does business and especially the natural ‘hard’ sciences. The programs announced in New York and Florida are just two examples of the over-appreciation of the sciences compared to the arts.
In his speech, Kennedy not only commended Frost as an American poet but also identified and explained the great value of his work and poetry in general. He said,
“When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths, which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.” (Kennedy 1963)
It is clear in Kennedy’s speech that he understood how invaluable the humanities’ contributions to society are. He conveyed the enormous powers of the arts and humanities to reveal alternative perspectives and allow one to explore the human condition. It seems, though, as if current American society has suffered what Kennedy described as “power narrow[ing] the areas of man’s concern,” with power referring to the influence of the economy and technological advancements. Worsening economic crises, unemployment rates, and increasing influences of technology have distracted the country’s attention so that most students focus their efforts on getting a job and being financially successful, rather than learning meaningful skills from the arts and humanities that apply to life.
Based on the direction American education is headed now, the arts and humanities are in danger. Their importance is overshadowed by the focus on STEM fields, and funding allocation mirrors this imbalance (Lewin, 2013). If this trend continues, what will happen to the humanities and arts departments all around America? Humanities majors currently make up around 7 percent of students, down from a high of 14 percent in 1970 (Lewin, 2013). Levels have remained stable since 1985, but as the government pushes American colleges to increase the number of STEM graduates by one million over the next ten years, they are likely to decline further. As students and monetary support funnel into the STEM fields, what will happen to the arts and humanities departments that they overshadow? In public school districts across the country, many art and music classes have already been cut as a result of budget deficiencies (Fang, 2013). Will liberal arts educations and general education requirements in the humanities eventually cease to exist? What effect will these trends have on the quality of students graduated from American colleges?
Without strong, inspiring arts and humanities departments, students will no longer acquire the abilities to fight the consequences of ‘power’ outlined in Kennedy’s speech. According to Linda Downs, the executive director and CEO of the College Art Association (CAA), and CAA President Anne Collins Goodyear, if the humanities are eliminated, “America’s future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking and creative problem solving offered by the humanities” (Epstein 2014). By studying the arts and humanities, students acquire skills necessary for success in almost every career. These include the abilities to think critically, logically, analytically and creatively, write well, form smart arguments, exercise flexible perspectives, be nondogmatic, understand different cultures and tolerate diversity, as well as understand and question societal standards (Supiano, 2014a; Supiano, 2014b; Henseler, 2012; Nisen, 2013; Clouser, 1990). Beyond these skills, English Professor Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia argues that he and his colleagues teach their students to question social values, specifically success (2013). Humanities majors aim to acquire knowledge and skills for their future endeavors, but more importantly, for their lives as a whole. Studying English literature or philosophy may not relate directly to a future career outside of academia, but doing so equips one with the ability to think, write, and articulate well and to determine one’s own definition of personal success. Without the humanities, fewer students would possess these invaluable qualities.
Some might claim that many of these skills are taught to students in STEM fields as well. Within such scientific contexts, however, these abilities are only taught as they apply to specific topics. Critical thinking, for example, is often regarded as an important skill to have in the field of scientific research. If science students are taught to think about problems only within the framework of science, their thought processes will be limited solely within the scope of what they have previously learned. With a different, more creative perspective, students are better able to think outside of the box to come up with unique solutions and ideas. Leon Wieseltier summarized this notion perfectly in his article Crimes Against Humanities: he wrote, “thought, action, experience, and art exceed the confines of scientific understanding” (2013). The humanities serve an important educational purpose even to students in the most technology- and science-driven majors. If students study subjects in the STEM fields alone, their skill set is likely to be much more specialized and less flexible than if they study the humanities as well. Rather than having such a narrow skill set, a more widely applicable set of knowledge and skills makes it easier to move between jobs, an important option in today’s job market (Henseler, 2012). It is for these reasons that the arts and humanities are valuable, not only for students pursuing majors in them, but also for those pursuing STEM fields.
Medicine, a very scientifically driven field, would especially suffer without the lessons from the arts and humanities. Though new medical technologies help save more lives all the time, medicine in its essence is a human practice. The founding director of the Center for Clinical Bioethics, Edmund Pellegrino, once said, “Medicine is the most humane of sciences, the most empiric of arts, and the most scientific of humanities” (Clouser, 1990). Medicine functions as an application of not only biological sciences and medical technologies, but the humanities as well. Being a healthcare provider involves a tremendous amount of human interaction and therefore requires empathy and compassion, as well as social and emotional intelligence (Nisen, 2013). Being a good healthcare provider requires a patient-centered perspective in which physicians connect to and understand their patients as individuals that need healing, rather than presenting illnesses that need curing.
Because the humanities provide opportunities to study people and to learn to understand, relate to, and empathize with others, they serve an important role in the development of medical professionals. The study of literature, specifically, promotes empathy and sensitivity toward patients and their stories (Pellegrino, 1989) and helps physicians respond to the specific needs and emotions of each patient (Blease, 2013). Medical humanities foster self-awareness and a “deep and complex understanding … of illness, suffering, personhood, and related issues” (Shapiro et al. 2009). Ethics courses prepare future physicians to make moral choices and practice medicine ethically (Pellegrino, 1989). Medical students can be freed from the confines of checklists and rituals and the reductionist mindset enforced during their education by training them to look at the familiar with different perspectives through the arts (Clouser, 1990; Kumagai, 2014). Art promotes critical reflection and the questioning of the assumptions, unconscious biases, and attitudes within the medical world that may lead to dehumanization (Kumagai, 2014). According to Arnold, Povar and Howell, “the ideal goal of medical education is to train humane physicians — physicians who believe in and are capable of expressing respect for the dignity and worth of the human being” (1987). It is the study of the humanities and arts that provides this training, not the memorization of biological facts or other purely scientific pursuits.
The inclusion of the humanities in medical education is not universally accepted, however. Some argue against it on the basis that there is no reliable evidence that studying the humanities improves physicians’ behavior (Blease, 2013). In response, Pellegrino calls attention to the fact that there is no direct evidence that teaching medical students biochemistry and anatomy improve their quality of care, either (1989). He explains that the purpose of the inclusion of humanities and social sciences in medical education “is to make those connections of the humanities to everyday life and culture that are essential if medicine is not to become merely the agent of applied technology.” Without the application of the values learned from the humanities and arts, medical professionals’ quality of care would suffer.
A physician lacking the abilities to think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, and understand his or her patients, no matter how well he or she understands human anatomy, cannot provide high quality care. Bickel acknowledges the fact that “only those skilled in ethical decision-making and who have good communication skills will be considered clinically competent” (1987). Without these abilities, physicians would rely solely on facts and algorithms to diagnose, treat, and interact with their patients. The qualities and skills most important for human interaction — empathy, sociability, communication, complex analysis, appropriate reactions, etc. — are necessary for the practice of medicine, and are the defining characteristics that separate humans from computers (Nisen, 2013). A computer’s capabilities therefore compare to that of a physician who does not possess the human qualities developed through exposure to the humanities.
If pre-medical and medical students only study the hard sciences, how can we expect them to develop into successful, effective physicians? Without strong humanities and arts departments and liberal arts educations, students will not acquire the thinking abilities, communication skills, or flexible perspectives valued and taught by the arts and humanities. Providing incentives for students to pursue STEM majors alone could cause arts and humanities departments to dissolve, which would result in very dangerous effects. The STEM fields are certainly important, but it is crucial that we acknowledge and embrace the value of the arts and humanities. In his article Why Teach English? Adam Gopnik asserts that, “The reason we need humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.” And if that is not enough of an explanation for you, consider what America’s students and doctors would be like if the humanities ceased to exist.
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