STEM Shouldn't Trump Liberal Arts in Education

Colleges shouldn't make science and technology majors more attractive to students than the liberal arts.

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Dr. Ed Mottel (left) works with students from his Engineering Chemisty class at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana on April 28, 2010.

It's distressing enough that the business model is increasingly dictating the way we operate schools. But it's getting worse with the push to impose a business model on education and learning themselves.

Educators across the country are being asked to adhere to the new Common Core Standards for English (adopted by 46 states), which now recommend having students read dry, informational nonfiction at the expense of great literature. The idea is that if a student wants to survive in a world of bureaucratese, he or she must learn how to navigate such compelling tomes as FedViews, by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and "Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management," published by the General Services Administration. Both are recommended texts under the new core curriculum.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

It's true that some such documents are hard to understand and not pleasurable to read. But the answer is not to teach youngsters how to figure out what the writers of those items are trying to say. The answer is to make sure that even people who are not going into non-liberal-arts fields actually learn how to write. The way to encourage good writing is to encourage a love of reading. An executive order isn't going to cut it.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott is suggesting that universities freeze tuition for majors in "strategic areas," such as science and engineering. Although classes in such field are more expensive to teach, they would be cheaper than classes in arts and humanities, which the policy considers frivolous and not job- or business-friendly.

Again, the idea is not only insulting but misguided as well. Liberal arts majors learn how to think—a skill that might have come in handy for Wall Street executives before they risked billions of dollars of other people's money and ran the economy into the ground. Such an education also encourages students to develop a moral compass (see previous) and understand how things went wrong in history so we don't repeat the same mistakes.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?]

And what is the point of offering a college education in science at a cheaper price than one in English literature? It's not a flat-screen TV. It's an education, it's a calling, and it's the student's entire future and life at stake. If someone hates computer science and isn't very good at math, is it really sensible to force that person into working for 50 or 60 years at something he or she hates and probably won't do well?

Students don't need a tuition incentive to study science and finance. The incentive is already there. Wall Street pays a lot more than, say, writing for a newspaper or teaching at a college. But people become writers and teachers anyway. And if corporate America really does need more home healthcare workers and nurses, they could pay them more ad treat them better. Offering a cheaper price to learn to do a job where you'll be underpaid and disrespected is not a good long-term strategy. In fact, it's just bad business.

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