There is more to higher education than STEM

We should provide a broad educational experience to students.

Trent M. Kays

I grew up under the shadow of a military installation focused on aerospace. Most of my immediate family has been involved in one way or another with aerospace during the past 50 years. I even attended middle school on military land. I’ve seen missiles rise from the landscape and race toward space.

As a child, this awed and saddened me. The giant missiles carrying satellites was my first view of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Unfortunately, STEM-related pursuits were not for me. Math and science never came easily, and I always struggled to understand many of the concepts one needs to grasp to be successful in aerospace. Alas, even today, my STEM skills are lacking, and I’m not the only one.

Education in the 21st century seems singularly focused on STEM. Science, technology, engineering and math are the fields we all should aspire to, or at least this is the sentiment of our country. Even President Barack Obama encourages this perspective.

In a speech to General Electric’s Waukesha Gas Engines facility last week, Obama said, “Folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

Taken within this single circumstance, there might not have been any reaction to the president’s comment. However, if we take this comment in context of the slashed budgets in the humanities and social sciences, it caused a little stir.

Obama’s comment elicited a response from the College Art Association, which offered a critique of his nonchalant attitude about art history while still supporting his work on the jobs issue.

In many ways, these types of comments should surprise no one. On the surface, I don’t disagree with Obama. Skilled manufacturing and trade jobs probably pay considerably more than an art history job.

The demand for art historians is low, while the demand for technologists is high. However, I don’t agree with his attitude toward art history as something opposed to a manufacturing job. This is a false binary.

Moreover, this type of thinking highlights the problematic constructs we force ourselves into where the only measure of success is monetary gain.

The measure of success in America is how much money you have when you die. If you leave your progeny a wonderful inheritance, you were successful. If you leave your progeny nothing, you lived a sad life. Success should be measured via happiness, not finances.

Of course, there is a reality to the argument for monetary gain. America is no place to be poor or homeless, given how we treat those who are destitute. But I’d much rather offer citizens the opportunity to better themselves holistically than force them into STEM fields.

Obama’s speech wasn’t all for naught. After seemingly dismissing art history, he said, “You can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education.” I think the president is absolutely correct in this point.

It is, perhaps, the greatest and most tragic myth in American culture that one must go to a four-year university to be successful. I know many students who go to college only because their parents force them.

Few people realize that trade schools or vocational institutions serve an important function to educate. They provide an education that students can quickly apply in the workforce. The growing number of people going after bachelor’s degrees created a lot of people with similar
experiences.

For better or worse, this means our culture’s idea of success has won. Of course, this doesn’t mean those who have gone to college are successful. While our culture builds up college instead of providing jobs or opportunities for degree holders, our culture has provided them nothing.

Well, that is, nothing but staggering debt and failed promises. Some people would be better served by going to a trade school or technical school than a “traditional,” four-year college. Some people would be happier and wealthier.

Unfortunately, none of this will matter as long as our culture continues to support low wages and treat those who don’t go to college as failures.

I get it. A degree is a mark of pride, and perhaps even more so within STEM. That’s where all the jobs are, right? Wrong. There are other jobs besides STEM jobs, and what’s most important is that we provide people the opportunity to pursue their interests in any field they choose.

Not everyone is interested in STEM. Some are interested in art history. Why can’t we support both?

Higher education should be a space for exploration where students can find their calling. Otherwise, whether there are jobs or high wages is irrelevant.

If you treat art history majors as inferior to engineering majors, you’re creating a wholly divided future in which STEM and the humanities are not equal. Ultimately, students get a raw deal.