Do We Really Need GenEd to Make Thinking People?

That’s part of the underlying assumption behind the pushback against Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s latest STEM initiative:

A crusade by humanities professors against Florida governor Rick Scott may be, contrary to their intentions, another sign of the suicide of American education. Scott has proposed lowering tuition rates for students majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects in order to bolster Florida’s economy. A petition begun by University of Florida professors labels this effort a “threat to the humanities” that would sacrifice education’s nobler purposes for mere job training.

My response to the Gator professors: rubbish!

  • STEM majors force people to think logically.  With post-modern deconstructionism, the humanities often don’t.
  • American academia is a poor transmitter of cultural norms and values.  It more often than not presents a one-sided, left-wing, history and tradition hating, and dissent stifling view of the world.  The recent fiasco at FAU (another tale from the land where the animals are tame and the people run wild) re the “Jesus stomping” incident only illustrates that point, and may have been in the back of Scott’s mind when he proposed his initiative.  Liberals always attack their conservative (and especially their Christian) opponents for trying to impose dogma, but you can’t claim to help people think when you’re that dogmatic yourself.
  • Graduates in the humanities frequently struggle to eat after they graduate, let alone pay their student loans off.
  • STEM departments are consistently barraged with complaints about how much per student they cost.  The students gripe about how much work it is.  They’re also endlessly fending off assaults on their curricula by creeping expansion of GenEd.  Scott’s initiative looks to be trying to address these problems.

It’s not an either/or situation: university students, in general, would be better off in a STEM major and obtaining their culture and values somewhere else.  That’s the way it works in a great deal of the world, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be that way here.

3 Replies to “Do We Really Need GenEd to Make Thinking People?”

  1. A large body of psychology experiments supports the view that there are two “systems of cognition” a la Daniel Kahneman’s _Thinking Fast and Slow_. Recently, philosophers of mind (technically humanists) have begun interpreting this duality of cognition algorithmically in terms of a hybrid mental architecture that is partly classical and partly connectionist. Humanistic thinking in its constant development of context, interpretation, and meaning is connectionist. So at the definitional level of “thought,” training in thinking must include the kinds of thinking found in the humanities to be even remotely balanced.

    I’ll give you three examples of the superior strength of balanced thought.

    1) Einstein. Clearly, Einstein was a great scientist. What many fail to realize is that his strength as a neo-Kantian and holistic philosopher (significant in its own right) contributed substantially to his scientific breakthroughs, arguably more than his relative (har, har) weakness as a mathematician. He is an outlier but also a clear demonstration of work in psychology showing that geniuses tend to think much more in terms of opposites and across multiple fields than normal people.

    2) The financial crisis. Investment banks heavily reliant on quantitative risk models based on historical data got into huge trouble in 2008 when novel circumstances short circuited fundamental market assumptions. In other words, banks had mathematically robust models but failed to relate them well to investor psychology, government institutions, and society more broadly. 2008 was a failure of historical understanding and imagination. Smaller, less data driven banks closer to their communities avoided the worst loans and financial instruments in part because they had a better “feel” for local homes and their customers.

    3) My undergraduate thesis. I wrote a pretty good thesis on “disruptive” new research in positive psychology on happiness and its application to welfare economics (social science). In the ten years since, I’ve come to realize that while I didn’t make any major technical mistakes, I was tone deaf in a very materialist, individualistic way that was a product of American consumerism and scientism. If I had had a better sense of ancient Greek philosophy, Christianity, the ways in which British political history and the industrial revolution fostered utilitarians like Bentham and Mill, or modern sociology, I might have avoided the Pegalianism that I slipped into.

    But those are primarily cognitive examples. Please, indulge a close reading of your original post and allow me to note that “making thinking people” implies a fairly mechanistic view of mankind. I am reminded of Max Fischer’s great novel _Homo Faber_ which explores a wealthy, rationalistic Swiss engineer’s sense of dislocation and eventual crisis of faith in technology. The title is Latin for “Man the Maker” as opposed to homo sapiens–“man the wise” and came into vogue in Germany in the aftermath of World War II at the hands of Hanna Arendt. Drawing upon St. Augustine, Arendt associated freedom with creative public action that reached beyond the instrumental reason of faber. She argued that the inversion of the ancient conceptions and hierarchy of labor, work (associated with technical faber), and action led to the eclipse of political freedom and personal responsibility characterizing modernity. Fischer, writing in 1957, and later Ray Bradbury absorbed these ideas and dramatized their the logic and culture in the nuclear arms race. Of course, I don’t think that fewer English majors will turn Florida into a technocratic military state, but if you want a rich description of society intellectually far out of balance _Homo Faber_ isn’t a bad place to begin.

    All of which isn’t to say that the humanities and social sciences couldn’t be better taught (or supported) in Florida (which has a solid job creating film school at FSU and a fine English department at UF) or that the sciences aren’t marvelous. But I do think that universities are essential institutions for fostering the kinds of non-STEM scholarship and engagement I’ve discussed above. Consider the fields drawn on by my examples–philosophy, politics, sociology, history, economics, religion, and literature. These are complex fields whose study if not practice isn’t well supported by institutions outside the academy. And their worth goes far beyond merely “transmitting cultural norms.” University literature, for example, exposes students to foreign languages, cultures, and their relationships across time. Rather than acquiring true knowledge of the “right” norms or “correct” values, students develop new perspectives, find commonalities, empathize across differences, and communicate more effectively in a global world. Are there ways to learn Spanish or read Rilke deeply outside of school? Sure. But they’re spotty. Where but universities will we train citizens widely to think like musicians or economists or Russian novelists or historians or the Chinese, etc?


    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

      The main flaw I see in this line of argument is that it assumes that the core of people’s humanities education needs to be at the university level, when in fact it needs to take place at the primary and secondary levels. Too much of what we do in universities consists in an attempt to compensate for the gross deficiencies in our primary and especially secondary schools. This applies in particular to reading and writing and math skills, and foreign language skills as well, where American schools have an abysmal track record. Were this done properly to start with, STEM majors would be better “rounded” going in rather than to have their GenEd curriculum crowd out what they need to know for their profession.

      The ability to make a living should not be pooh-poohed as is so frequently the case. My wife teaches music, but students who want to make it a career are counselled to think long and hard. It’s easier in many cases for them to study something else (music is an excellent skill for STEM people to have) and use that to fund their musical or other artistic pursuits rather than to compete for few and low paying positions in the arts. And, of course, one can make the argument that university music departments hope for students to come in with high performance skills so they don’t have to do a lot of work.

      I teach civil engineering and presented to my Soil Mechanics class the geotechnical report (in Spanish) for a project in Central America. My point in doing this was twofold: to emphasise the need for foreign language skills, and to introduce them to the idea that they may have to go somewhere else to make a living, the ultimate test of cross-culturation. And that’s a lot easier with a STEM education.


  2. Ok, let’s take a step back here. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog off and on for a year or so, and one thing I like is your emphasis on class. With that theme in mind…

    Why are Americans especially politicians pushing STEM education contra the humanities right now? Because we’re in a middle and lower class jobs crisis begat in the short-term by a liquidity freeze and in the long-term by improvements in information technology and increased globalization across financial, goods, and some labor markets. So people are afraid, and they want job security now. STEM training seems to provide an answer. And it does for some people–the “right brained” and workers without much access to good training in the humanities for class reasons. But it’s not a magic bullet. If you’re part of that high percentage of the population that’s “left brained,” then STEM is not for you. Many people are mentally ambidextrous, but many really don’t have a choice. For them, it’s much better to move from writing high-school quality papers to university level ones (a significant difference), and then go into media, PR, government, law, sales and marketing, retail management, real estate, teaching, hospitality, pretty much the entire service half of the economy that doesn’t have high job growth rates right now but also can’t be outsourced easily and which offers a fairly sharp rate of income growth over time. Do you really want to charge those people a premium for not going STEM? Beyond any real or imagined or changing market premiums?

    But let’s say you do go STEM. Ok, great, you get a rigorous education, you participate in the great project of science, and you graduate with skills in demand. But let’s not forget that your salary doesn’t grow much over your career unless you do above average patent work or you develop the sort leadership and people skills to make the jump into management. Yes, your skills are more readily transferable across borders, so you can tap into foreign labor markets. But they can also tap into you. So unlike say a lawyer, a software programmer has to worry about direct competition from India, China, and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, you also have to worry about the quicker obsolescence of your skills. Long-term you have to worry more about competition from AI as it turns out that classical reason is more easily automated. If you’re elite in your field, you can put that leverage to work for you, but if not, your newfound technical middle class security is back into play all over again.

    Let’s say you’re lucky enough to go to a fancy private college where most students have money and brains. Then you can pursue the humanities or social sciences in a way impossible at the secondary school level and move into serious leadership in media, government, law, consulting, or finance. In fact, if you look at senior leadership positions across those fields, you see that humanities graduates pretty seriously outnumber STEM grads: That’s partly an artifact of the greater supply of non-STEM grads, but it also speaks to the success of the humanities done right and the way that the relative market value and quality of non-STEM education varies by social status. That inequality is sad, we’d probably both agree.

    Let’s move from the individual level to a broader, more societal one. The financial crisis and the deeper trends it exposed were caused to a high degree by things like the poor design of the euro, the foreign demand for American debt caused by investment failures in exporters in Asia, regulatory capture in America. All of these problems are non-STEM problems, so for society to treat them by turning away from non-STEM education strikes me as self-defeating. If you want to strengthen the American middle class ceding the humanities and their attendant cultural power back to elites is not the way to go long-term. We need a goodly number of university educated middle-class lawyers, politicians, economists, historians, journalists, TV producers, etc. Look at the Soviets. They had great STEM training but little real humanism despite a rich cultural legacy. It’s no coincidence that they were also anti-democratic and had no middle class. Alternately, Renaissance humanism went hand in hand with the rise of the merchant class and the move from feudalism to capitalism.


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