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Notable Speeches


The Need for the Humanities in the 21st Century STEM University

James J. Clauss, Professor of Classics; Adjunct in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, and Comparative Literature, University of Washington

Puget Sound Association of Phi Beta Kappa Fall Luncheon, October 22, 2014

James ClaussWhen I agreed to give this presentation, I gave as my title “The Need for the Humanities in the 21st Century STEM University.” As I reflected on the topic, I realized that it might be more interesting to focus on some of the significant pressures exerted nowadays by the remarkable groundswell of interest being shown in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, which areas of study provide the acronym for STEM insofar as they affect the Humanities and, I will argue, call for their need. As I review some of these pressures, I will also point out along the way possible ramifications of this trend on the Humanities and the Social Sciences, with a nod toward the future of higher education in general. I look forward to hearing what you think.

Let me begin by stating that, even though I am a professor of Classics and decidedly a Humanities-type, I fully understand and support the current underwriting of STEM education. One of the reasons I can say this happily and with complete conviction, of course, is that the ancient Greeks instituted and set many of the conversations in these fields that we continue to grapple with, and have even provided many cogent first answers along the way. And of course all of the words behind STEM come from Greek and Latin after all. So indeed I have a natural predisposition toward the study of these topics as a representative of those who created them in the first place.

In fact, it is my plan to create a course on STEM subjects in antiquity in the coming years with the goal of observing their evolution and also to examine the natural affinity that the Humanities and Social Sciences have with STEM. What is that affinity, you might ask? In addition to exploring ancient approaches to the subjects at hand, it would be most useful to see how people responded to them in their day. Plato for instance became very interested in math because its universal applications spoke to his philosophical concept of universal forms. Based on a fundamental interest in biological classification, Aristotle applied his methodology to political and literary theory. Engineering and architecture were remarkably developed, as temples such as the Parthenon and Pantheon reveal, but they responded to, and were erected in, the service of religion and politics. In short, theories and discoveries in STEM subjects had all sorts of connections beyond the confines of the disciplines, particularly in the areas of what today we would call the Humanities and Social Sciences. And to no surprise, this is happening today as well, as so many events make clear: the internet has now become the source of cyber crime of epic proportions; modern travel allows diseases to move across oceans and continents in ways never imagined and with significant political consequences; the FBI does not want cell phones encrypted so that law enforcement can have free access, an issue that runs up against personal property and freedom. How are we supposed to respond to scientific and technological issues such as these? This, I argue, is where the Humanities and Social Sciences have a critical role to play: exploring and critiquing the ramifications of new technologies and scientific discoveries . But will those of us in these fields indeed be at the table in the years ahead, at least as equal players in higher education?

From my experience as Director of Honors, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, and a member of a number of committees involving the direction that higher education is now taking, I have observed a number of pressures toward STEM education that are exerted on both individuals and institutions which I would like to review briefly. For I believe that these — among others you might add — have the potential to change higher education as we know it. In fact, we are already deeply involved in major transitions that could make the university of the near future a very different institution from the one we have known heretofore. As you may know, universities are already offering on-line courses to matriculating students on college campuses in addition to MOOCs offered to the world at large. Traditional methods of teaching are giving way to flipped classrooms. Subjects are now being taught and researched that did not exist all that long ago and are altering traditional alliances on campus as well as revenue flows. It is a fascinating time to be a member of a university and especially one as prestigious as the UW. It being a time of transition, however, it is important that we employ the skill we hope to pass on to our students — critical thinking — as we move forward so that as we change, we change for the better. So here are my thoughts and observations regarding the pressures we face in the current move toward a STEM-heavy curriculum.

1. Familial and societal pressure

This first item has actually been around for a long time, but the pressure has ratcheted up considerably in recent years. Let’s say you are a parent, teacher or high school counselor and you encounter a daughter, son or student who is really smart, scary smart like Honors students and inductees into PBK. How many of you would without hesitation say to such a student: You should be a dancer, actor or artist? You should be a language teacher? You should be a philosopher. You should be a sociologist or historian? Rather from my experience the initial knee-jerk reaction in the presence of someone really scary smart is to point them toward the sciences, and especially in the areas of medicine.

In fact, over the past seven years of reading applications for the Honors Program I have been taking note of the majors identified by applicants as their preferred fields of study. The largest group by far involves the biological sciences (biology, biochemistry, bioengineering, etc), followed by computer science, other engineering majors and a large number interested in business. (By the way, out of some 2500 applicants last year there were only 2 students who identified as potential Classics majors.) The applicants who are accepted into and come to the UW are the kids who graduated high school with an average 3.92 GPA and SAT combined scores of 2200+. These are the scary smart kids and the vast majority are choosing STEM majors. That said, not all of the Honors students who come to the UW get into or finish their intended majors; many in fact discover that the pressures that led them to STEM did not in the long run mirror their own interests or reflect their personal goals, once they were able to determine what they were. My point is, however, that family and society at large, once they identify someone as smart, instinctively put pressure on them to consider STEM. After all, how do you explain to Uncle Harry, a neurosurgeon at Harborview, that young Poindextra, valedictorian of her class with her 4.0 GPA and 2400 SAT scores, captain of the women’s soccer team, and designer of a line of sports clothing that automatically replaces electrolytes during competitions, wants to study Spanish, English, History, Philosophy, Political Science or worse yet dead languages? Such a scenario typically prompts statements such as “what a waste of a brilliant mind,” which in itself is a form of societal pressure. Are we serving our youth by operating within so narrow a paradigm for intellectual excellence?

I would like to provide a rather striking example of a student under the sort of pressure I am talking about. In my second year as Director of Honors, I was sitting at a table with some students and was asked to guess their majors. When I came to one student, this particular individual reminded me of the many Art students who shared our space in the Cal Berkeley Library; there was something that seemed or felt so familiar. So I guessed Art. The answer: Engineering. Boy did I blow that one! Afterwards, however, the student came to me apart from the others and told me that in fact art was the preferred major but that parents would not pay tuition for anything but a degree in engineering. Now that is pressure.

One final example: me. When I was in graduate school, an older cousin of mine, an otorhinolaryngologist, took me aside and reprimanded me for pursuing a degree in Classics. “What kind of life can you have with a career in that?” said he. In my first year as an assistant professor at the UW, my father, a successful insurance agent, asked me if I was sure if I wanted a career that paid so little, as I could return home to work with him. I did not have tenure at the time, I had to work summers to make ends meet, and, with another child on the way, this was a tempting option. As you can see, I stayed with what I feel is my true vocation, but I felt the pressure of abandoning the Humanities for a more lucrative career, which is the very thing being dangled before students deciding upon their college education today.

2. Governmental, Business and Institutional Pressure to support STEM education

The federal and state governments, Business and Industry and Educational Institutions also exert pressure on parents and students to pursue STEM subjects. I offer the following examples thanks to Google, without which life would be truly unimaginable.

In 2012, the Obama Administration announced “the President’s plan for the creation of a new, national Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Master Teacher Corps comprised of some of the nation’s finest educators in STEM subjects. The STEM Master Teacher Corps will begin with 50 exceptional STEM teachers established in 50 sites and will be expanded over 4 years to reach 10,000 Master Teachers. These selected teachers will make a multi-year commitment to the Corps and, in exchange for their expertise, leadership and service, will receive an annual stipend of up to $20,000 on top of their base salary. The Administration will launch this Teacher Corps with the $1 billion from the President’s 2013 budget request currently before Congress.” (Whitehouse.gov)

Within our own state, last year the board leading the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship reported that:

“Nearly 800 Washington students will soon receive a practical example of the state’s commitment to STEM and health care education: scholarships for studies in science, technology, engineering, math and health care fields add up to as much as $17,000 per student over five years.

“Washington State Opportunity Scholarships, which will now increase five-fold starting in a student’s junior year, help Washington state students get the STEM and healthcare degrees required for the thousands of high-demand, high-paying jobs open today,” said Microsoft Executive Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith. Smith also chairs the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) Board...

“Students receiving the scholarship for the first time in 2013 will receive $1,000 for each of their first two years in school. If the students are in STEM and health care fields in their junior, senior and even into a fifth year, the size of the scholarship increases to $5,000 per year–meaning recipients could receive as much as $17,000 to help pay for their degrees. The nearly 800 new WSOS scholars join more than 3,000 students who earned scholarships in May 2012. The WSOS supports 3000 students annually.”

As you can see, built into this scholarship program is the financial pressure to stay with STEM majors, regardless of aptitude or interest, and the chair of the committee is not an educator, but someone who — one might reasonably say — represents the interests of the “high-demand, high-paying jobs open today.” Please remember that I am not an anti-STEMite and that I laud the cooperation between business, government and education to support higher education. Such support, however, without consideration of the broader goals of higher education writ large, could have unintended repercussions on the future of the university. Preparing students for “high-demand, high-paying jobs” would in my view as an educator of over 30 years represent a significant change from the current broader liberal arts education that is inclusive of career paths but not defined by them, an education that is distinctively American, I would add.

On Oct. 17 of this year, less than a week ago, Katherine Long of The Seattle Times noted that “The Washington Legislature has appropriated $18 million to boost engineering and computer-science programs at the UW, WWU and Washington State University.” Her article begins: “For the past few years, educators and parents have been imploring students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields. It looks like they’re listening. Public universities across the state are seeing a big increase in the number of students who want to major in computer science, engineering and other high-tech fields.”

Let me repeat: “For the past few years, educators and parents have been imploring students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math ... and it looks like they’re listening.” This is precisely the sort of pressure I am speaking of.

And the UW most certainly is listening. In a 2012 memo of the UW Futures Committee available on line, the report noted that during the prior two legislative sessions “the Legislature provided incremental funding for STEM enrollments, mostly in the form of computer science and engineering support. We continue to present requests for STEM funding to enroll additional students and will count on the Legislature to provide funding to support further expansion in this critical work.”

All of these examples illustrate the multifaceted pressure that families, society, business, universities, and governments put upon students to pursue a STEM education. It is quite intense and very persuasive.

3. The Pressure of Tuition

The UW was once a truly state-funded university and affordable to many more students than it is today, especially following the fiscal melt down of 2008. As most of you know, because of the precipitous drop in state revenues, the UW lost a sizeable percentage of its funding and transferred a significant amount of the lost subsidy to students, even after reducing staff, not replacing retired or departing faculty, and withholding raises for several years among other painful cost saving measures. While I was Director of Honors, each fall Ed Taylor, VP of UAA, and I would meet with freshmen in the program. At one of these meetings a student brought the new reality home to us when she stated that she did not know how she was going to deal with debt after college. She spelled out the reality of tuition, room and board in the new environment and anticipated a debt in the vicinity of $100,000 upon graduation, and she was a resident of our state! Non-residents are currently looking at a price tag of around $200,000 for a college education.

This was the first time I realized the full extent of the seismic shift in the fiscal terrain our students face. How can someone just out of college, if they manage to get a job, start to pay back such an amount with a degree in English, Classics, Dance, Sociology, History, or the like? This is at least the perception and fear that parents and students now entertain. Even upon completion of a graduate program or professional school that was fully funded, carrying such a debt forward would feel crushing. No wonder, then, that parents and students are now shying away from the Humanities and Social Sciences! The financial reality of the cost of a college education offers yet another form of intense pressure toward a degree in STEM, as well as Business or other professional oriented careers, given the expectation that careers in these areas will justify and eventually cover the astronomic cost of tuition.

4. The Pressure of Career Opportunities

According to the Seattle Times article mentioned above, “Business leaders have long complained about a dearth of highly skilled tech workers in Washington and called for more state money to try to bridge the training gap. A March study released by the business group Washington Roundtable said 25,000 high-skill jobs have remained vacant for three months or longer because qualified workers can’t be found to fill them.” Moreover, as we also learn, “All of EWU’s spring computer-science grads — about 90 students — were offered jobs in the Spokane area, and many of those jobs start at $80,000 a year, said Steve Simmons, computer-science professor emeritus. Not bad for a bachelor’s degree, he said.”

So with Business and Industry not only helping to underwrite STEM education, but offering positions for more tech workers and dangling $80,000 salaries, which is far more than entry level Assistant Professors in the Humanities and Social Sciences with PhDs make, and with an expensive price tag for college education to boot, how do the Humanities and Social Sciences stand a chance to attract any students, let alone the more talented among them in this environment?

And in fact, within the past several years both my own department and other departments in the Humanities and Social Sciences have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of majors that has been unparalleled during my time at the UW. The pressures I have outlined above are now so intense that, as I mentioned above, the UW is itself under considerable pressure to redirect its energies away from its traditional mission as a university — an educational institution that supports research and inquiry across a host of disciplines that represent the broadest array of issues reflective of the human condition — toward that of a technical college whose primary directive is to prepare students for high-demand, high-paying jobs. Preparation for such careers is a good thing, mind you. But we need to question whether this should emerge as the main purpose for any university and especially for one of the stature of the UW whose record of excellence in teaching and research across campus is enviable?

Florida Governor Rick Scott, recently famous for “Fangate,” provides an example of the kind of thinking that carries the potential to eviscerate the broader goals of postsecondary public education. He argued in support of differential tuition rates for Florida undergraduates: freezing tuition for students pursuing majors leading to “high-skill, high wage, high-demand” jobs, while all other students would pay higher tuition rates as their careers are apparently less vital to the State of Florida. The good governor so eloquently opined: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don't think so.” Ironically, the students in the humanities and social sciences, who pay the same tuition as engineering students, actually subsidize STEM degrees because the cost of educating the former is so much cheaper given the lower salaries of professors and the lack of expensive labs. Given the current budgetary model, STEM at the UW actually benefits from all of the Humanities and Social Science majors, the very ones whom our society is pushing toward STEM. I hope that you agree that the situation we face is most interesting.

Before I head toward my peroration, I want to point out that I have not heard individuals at the UW promoting moves toward becoming a wholly technical institution. I have great respect for our president, provost, deans and faculty and am very proud to be a Husky. But the pressure is here now and we need to reflect upon it, eyes wide open and critical thinking in full gear.

We need to ask ourselves if STEM 24/7 is what we envisage as the future of higher education. Business needs and state’s interests are real and I take them seriously, but there are other needs and interests to be considered, such as the individual with a vocation to be a teacher, dancer, artist, preacher, sociologist, historian, and so on. According to a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, among the 15 top professions that Liberal Arts Graduates pursue include all levels of teachers; lawyers, judges and magistrates; chief executives and legislators; social workers; clergy; accountants and auditors; and others whose work we depend on. If everyone goes into STEM, who will perform these critical tasks? Those who could not make it in STEM? We complain about teaching in K-12. Why don’t we view their contributions to society as important as the designer of the next i-Thing and pay them salaries comparable to the high-demand, high-paying jobs open today? And if they are not performing well, where will the next STEM geniuses come from? And if the market is glutted with STEM majors, what will happen to the high salaries? (FYI, perorations in ancient oratory are supposed to be emotional, so I am only following ancient rhetorical theory.)

But there are other needs that the Humanities and Social Sciences address, such as supporting the need for a citizenry that can think critically and vote wisely when it comes to choosing thoughtful leaders or creating beneficial laws. And what about educating STEM students beyond their skill sets? How about personal and professional ethics more broadly conceived than within the parameters of a given career? How about lucid and persuasive writing? How about exposure to history to put recent discoveries in a larger context and avoid repeating past mistakes? How about exposure to other cultures so that our graduates’ future work might have broader relevance and outreach? These are the sorts of topics that are at the heart of humanistic and social scientific research and teaching, which we need and perhaps even more so given the overwhelmingly narrow purview of STEM if left unsupported within the confines of its disciplines.

The pressures of which I speak are leading current and future students, and some of the most gifted among them, away from critical services and the sort of broad based liberal arts experience offered in the past and toward more narrowly conceived technical degrees that lead to a job and a career but not necessarily to the examined life promoted by my old friend Socrates. I would like to finish my presentation with a story that I hope will illustrate the transformative power of Humanistic thinking.

In 2007, I traveled with the UW men’s basketball team to Greece where they played five exhibition games. One of the goals of my participation was to include an academic experience within the trip. Since we were going to Greece, I selected Socratic dialogues as the topic and the students read the Apology, Crito, part of the Phaedo, and the Euthryphro. We had many conversations both before, during and after the trip, but one was particularly memorable. I asked members of the team if they would like to meet Socrates. The response was immediate and visceral: half the group said yes and the other half no. Those voting no expressed the concern that he would make them look foolish; they had read the dialogues very well. As they debated the topic among themselves, one of the players stopped, looked truly surprised and said “Oh my god, I’m a philosopher.”

On another occasion, I asked them what their highest goals were and how these related to “the Good” we were reading about in Plato’s texts. The initial response was an NBA career. I asked why. The response: fame and fortune. Asking à la Socrates what their next goals would be if they had this career with its fame and fortune, following a sequence of ever growing goals, and without any prompting on my part, they came to critique (though not abandon) their desired career and identified the pursuit of the highest Good as the best goal.

Back in 2007 a group of student athletes found themselves face to face with Socrates, who still has the power to change minds and hearts, and engaged in the dynamic process of critical thinking. One of the students told me that conversations on these topics even continued in the locker room outside of the classes. Do we really want to give up on such transformational educational opportunities?