Monday, October 31, 2011

Does Florida need Anthropologists?

Heather Cox Richardson

Recently, Florida Governor Rick Scott declared that Florida did not need to waste effort educating students in fields outside of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the so-called STEM fields. Degrees in those fields, he said, would guarantee Floridians jobs, while tax money spent in other fields was thrown away. Florida doesn’t need “a lot more anthropologists,” he said. “It’s a great degree if people want to get it. But we don’t need them here.”*

While Governor Scott’s comments have raised hackles in the non-scientific academic community, he wasn’t saying anything we haven’t heard before. Indeed, there is something to what he says. Americans desperately need better training in math and the sciences, and we don’t currently have the tools to make that happen. Last year, for example, when New Hampshire officials listed the areas in which there were critical shortages of qualified teachers, they discovered critical shortages in mathematics and all the sciences—chemistry, earth sciences, life science, and physics—from grades 5-12. Ouch.

But there is a fatal flaw in the reasoning that we must invest in STEM to the detriment of other fields. People making that argument forget the central issue in science and technology today: that it is changing at an extraordinary rate. It is changing so fast, that, as the video below notes, the top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. As the video points out, this means
that we are educating children today for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that have not been invented, to solve problems that we don’t yet know are problems.

To create educated workers and informed citizens in such a world, the solution is not to teach them specific technological skills. They need to be able to think creatively. They need to know how to manipulate information in a variety of ways, and they need to be able to communicate their discoveries. They need to know how to work with a variety of people in wide-flung fields, and they need to know how to adapt to changing technologies. They need to know how societies grow and change.

This is the turf of liberal arts scholars.

Recently, pundits have complained that liberal arts proponents offer as justification for their field of study either that it has an explicit economic use or that its beauty is that it has no use at all. In light of the extraordinary demands of today’s technological economy, it seems to me reasonable to argue instead that the continuing importance of the liberal arts is in providing the skills for today’s workers to move from job to job, from technology to technology, from idea to idea, throughout their lifetimes.

Florida probably needs anthropologists, after all.


Randall said...

Heather: Thanks for the update on this controversy.

This Oct 27 essay in Times Higher Ed somewhat relates to your point:

You can't tell me anything" By Jon Marcus

Here's a passage:

"Seeking to explain this anti-intellectual turn, Norman Nie, founder and director of the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, says: 'It's really a result of the loss of liberal arts education. There has been an explosion of what amount to trade schools and, even in (many) universities, a curriculum that is trade school-like. Social sciences and the humanities have melted away. Physicists don't read the great works of history. The biggest problem is the loss of the background that a liberal arts education gives you in terms of context.'"

Alan Bliss said...

As Heather notes, the humanities have long been an target for conservative ideologues and the corporations that own them. Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt and his business cronies disdained "the university" and its corps of effete liberals.

Into the current debate comes Steve Jobs, through his untimely death and biography, "Steve Jobs," by Walter Isaacson. According to Isaacson, Jobs aspired to "stand at the intersection of humanities and the sciences." (Jobs himself ascribed the phrasing of that goal to his own hero, Edwin Land of Polaroid).

In his widely-viewed 2005 Stanford commencement address, Jobs, who dropped out of Reed College, cited a college calligraphy course as one of his most influential experiences. He claimed that Apple's characteristic emphasis on elegant, innovative design in technology rose out of his time in that class.

In an October 30 piece in the New York Times, Isaacson argues that America's 21st century global competitors, such as China and India, have already proven their people's capacity for technological achievement. He adds that "America's advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. That is the formula for true innovation, as Steve Jobs's career showed."

Randall said...

Alan: I must be the only person in America who hasn't seen that commencement address. Thanks for piquing my interest!

Gabriel said...

I really like the tone you take in this blog! I agree that, in fact, we really do need more STEM training. Figuring out how to balance that with my own advocacy of the study of history for all and the history major for those so inclined, though, is sometimes tough.

At the very least, we need these fields to be partners in training current students. They should not be an either/or proposition. And yet, for many students and faculty they are. The argument that students are usually inclined towards either the humanities and social sciences or math and the sciences is a common one. Certainly that is true, but ought not college students know something about each?