Via Meadia is and intends to remain a liberal arts-friendly site. Proud holder of a BA in English lit, I continue to believe that the traditional western curriculum provides an extraordinarily rich and useful intellectual, political and moral basis for young people who want to understand and change our world.
But many colleges have organized themselves so that kind of education is almost impossible to find these days, and nobody ever said that the liberal arts were the high road to wealth. It therefore makes sense that the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields have long been the holy grail of education policy. Fears that America is falling behind in these subjects have inspired president after president to focus on improving America’s performance. Yet progress is slow. A perceptive article in the New York Times examines the challenges of educating a generation of kids in these difficult fields:
Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors. […]
After studying nearly a decade of transcripts at one college, Kevin Rask, a professor at Wake Forest University, concluded last year that the grades in the introductory math and science classes were among the lowest on campus. The chemistry department gave the lowest grades over all, averaging 2.78 out of 4, followed by mathematics at 2.90. Education, language and English courses had the highest averages, ranging from 3.33 to 3.36.
Ben Ost, a doctoral student at Cornell, found in a similar study that STEM students are both “pulled away” by high grades in their courses in other fields and “pushed out” by lower grades in their majors. […]
The National Science Board, a public advisory body, warned in the mid-1980s that students were losing sight of why they wanted to be scientists and engineers in the first place. Research confirmed in the 1990s that students learn more by grappling with open-ended problems, like creating a computer game or designing an alternative energy system, than listening to lectures. While the National Science Foundation went on to finance pilot courses that employed interactive projects, when the money dried up, so did most of the courses. Lecture classes are far cheaper to produce, and top professors are focused on bringing in research grants, not teaching undergraduates.
I’ve written before about the usefulness of a STEM degree, and it remains the case that many of the best job opportunities lie in the more left-brained fields. Yet even the mix of good opportunities and pressure from on high has not been enough to encourage a generation of kids to break out their calculators.
As usual there is plenty of blame to go around. For the students, it is important to remember that despite what you may think, college is not a four-year party of self-discovery with some side educational benefits. In an earlier post, I wrote:
Your competition is working hard, damned hard, and is deadly serious about learning. There’s nothing written in the stars that guarantees Americans a higher standard of living than other people. Those of you who spend your college years goofing off in the traditional American way are going to pay a much higher price for this than you think.
This holds just as true now as it did then. If you find yourself complaining that the hard work of a STEM major is distracting you from your “real” college experience and you don’t have a large trust fund, you have some major attitude adjustments to make. Make them now, while it’s relatively easy, or make them later when you are mired in student loan debt and working at Starbucks.
But if many students today, like young people through the ages, would often rather have fun and hang out than do hard work that will only pay off in some distant future, the educational system has some rethinking to do. It looks as if teaching STEM courses well, especially perhaps at the freshman and sophomore levels, requires different talents and skills than conducting professional research. Back in Pundit High we had some pretty good teachers in science, math (shout out to Mssrs. Choate and Broyles) and the hard parts of the liberal arts curriculum (Latin and Greek, for example). Hard courses need better teachers than easy ones; perhaps the country should be doing more to develop and reward a suitable cadre of effective teachers who know how to help their charges fall in love with a demanding subject.
Parents also need to pay much closer attention to the decisions their kids take about the courses they take. Unless you want to remodel your garage so your adult children can live there for the next twenty years, you might want to provide some guidance about the courses they choose — especially in the first two years of college.
And for those of you still committed to the liberal arts, remember this: nobody gets a life exemption from hard work. If you are shying away from hard subjects in the liberal arts — no foreign languages, no courses that meet early in the morning, no classes with demanding reading lists — the only person you are cheating is yourself.