welovetheskyWhy Humanities Still Matter In 2013

by Ben Stern

The K-12 education community just might be paying too much attention to STEM education.

We have failed to hear the cries of the dying humanities. A lot of ink (text? pixels?) has been spilled over the recent American Academy of Arts and Sciences report on the humanities. In sum, the humanities are dying. The report points to declining Humanities majors and offers recommendations for how to revive it.

For those of us in K-12, the report recommends that we set career and participatory (i.e., democratic participation) readiness as goals, improve teaching, and put more incentivized money into education. Sounds good to me!

At the heart of the humanities’ downward spiral is vocationalism. More and more, Americans view education as career preparation, as opposed to citizenship and life preparation. A STEM education more clearly leads to a well-paying job than one in English or history. What’s more, as technology infuses education, people look to computers as efficient means of providing education, whether in the form of MOOCs, blended learning, or instructional software.

The emphasis on STEM education from the top further reinforces the idea that kids should be preparing for a career in engineering. It’s no surprise, then, that so much of the edtech market – one I’ve gotten to know quite well – focuses so much more on STEM than on the humanities.

Maybe they’re right; maybe the future of the American economy depends on people with coding skills and engineering chops. But, unless technology really does yield a Kubrickian future with HAL 9000 overlords, it will still be human beings running the show.

And as the field of study dedicated to the aspects of our lives that are non-technical, the humanities will be as relevant as ever.

The Relevance Of Humanities

Although it is less obviously beneficial to a person’s career, the study of the humanities affects a person’s character, intellect, and judgment. Reading great books, considering great ideas, examining the patterns of history, and discussing the questions of our world unanswerable by science (or technology, engineering, and math) help a person exercise those STEM skills later in life. These studies also help a person better understand his/her own world and, therefore, enjoy it. What’s more, these activities are rewarding in and of themselves.

They might make a person a better doctor or engineer, since both careers require ethical decisions and value-judgments. But they also help a person enjoy thinking, feeling, and learning, pleasures we owe to our students.

We are short-changing our students if we don’t advocate for a better humanities education as we continue to advocate for more STEM. It doesn’t have to be a tech-free model, either. Technology offers students access to resources, people, and ideas, gives students a voice, offers a platform for discussion, and provides them with creative tools to grapple with their understanding of the world. More edtech companies should consider how technology can enhance the humanities.

More ed reform advocates should include a renewed emphasis on the humanities in their reform. There is room for both STEM and humanities.

An education in writing, reading, and thinking–and understanding what it means to be human–are more important than ever.

Ben Stern is the Academic Liaison for the edtech company Parlor; Image attribution flickr user welovethesky