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.