STEM’s fine, but we need liberal arts to stem the rot

By Radhika Vu Thanh Vy   July 26, 2018 | 07:00 pm PT
STEM’s fine, but we need liberal arts to stem the rot
Vietnamese students after finishing their high school graduation exam. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen
A holistic approach that combines science, business and the arts is not romantic foolishness, but pragmatic wisdom.

I am a sophomore double-majoring in English and Economics. For my January course, I took an econ course in Technology, Education, and Labor markets.

The one key fact that I took away from it is this: education systems are all heart and eyes for economic growth, putting education itself at the beck and call of the economy.

Which means that behind and despite all the lofty rhetoric, we are trained to become preferably well-oiled cogs in the market machine.

What’s that? What does the market need now? Hi-tech skills? Here you go: We’ll turn out batches of well-educated, highly skilled, disciplined workers.

The aim of higher education is to prepare students like me to be useful members of society. Institutions of higher education prepare us for the job market, because we accept that it is through our vocations that we make our biggest contributions to society.

It is also this mindset that undermines liberal arts education in the U.S. and elsewhere, nudging students towards specialized majors and large research-strong universities. The economy wants productive and innovative individuals, and the youth, via the education sector, are responding with an intense focus on specialization.

As students, we always keep an ear to the ground and eyes wide open for job prospects and opportunities. We apply for internships to gain actual work experience so that when we enter the “real” world, we can compete competently. That, we are told and accept, is how we can contribute “meaningfully” to society.

Since we are realists, and temper even our most cherished ideals with a liberal dose, pun intended, of pragmatism, and since market-oriented education has been in vogue for decades, let us look at the reality of where our globalizing world is today.

Religious intolerance is on the rise, worldwide.

Inequality is increasing, worldwide.

Concentration of political power in the moneyed class is increasing, worldwide.

I don’t think one has to be a seer or extraordinarily perspicacious to see that if these trends persist, we, as individuals, nations and a comity of nations, are not headed towards a peaceful, prosperous future.

We’ve been listening to the wrong melody and we’ve been tuning ourselves wrong.

If we tune out the loudest voice, the economy, for a second, we can hear what our communities want, what they are crying out for. Communities just want to heal. Displaced people want a home, homeless people want shelter, sick people want treatment, jobless people want opportunities, marginalized groups want respect, and everyone wants to feel safe.

I posit that in this tuning correction that we need, a liberal arts education is the silent hero, quietly and doggedly preserving qualities and values that the world sorely needs but doesn’t recognize or reward (monetarily) — qualities like empathy, broad general knowledge, far-sightedness, open-mindedness, moral and ethical principles. In our increasingly divergent, economically driven and unequal world, a liberal arts model engages in damage control.

I am half Vietnamese and half Indian. I grew up in Vietnam and went to high school in Singapore. I fell in love with literature. But the humanities were an endangered species in higher education in Southeast Asia, so I applied for refuge in a protected area — a liberal arts college in the U.S. I was privileged enough that my parents could afford to send me here, and I am grateful that Colby accepted me.

Education systems in rapidly growing Asian economies put so much pressure on young people to pursue STEM fields. Kids are pressured to specialize as soon as possible. Streaming starts in middle school. “We want their minds ASAP, but not their spirit; so let’s numb them early on,” seems to be the motto.

What we call a modern society seems to undervalue the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Many young people have little contact with these subjects, and those who show interest are pressured to delegate such pursuits to hobbies on the side, even though some of them have the potential to become good historians and poets and artists and novelists.

But surprisingly, Asia seems to be making a U-turn. Places like China, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea are shifting to liberal arts education models. I’ll say that again: the American liberal arts education model may be losing popularity here, but it’s gaining traction in Asia. In 2005, the first independent liberal arts college in China opened. In 2011, Yale-NUS became Singapore’s first liberal arts college.

This shift is happening because Asian countries are realizing that an overly specialized, stressed out and emotionally numb workforce is not sustainable. Confronting a future dominated by automation and artificial intelligence, countries want a workforce of creative and well-rounded individuals.

This new trend will hopefully produce a more emotionally healthy and civically engaged generation of citizens. It will hopefully produce a more caring, imaginative, and energized group of young people, their minds, hearts, and spirits in tune.

I’ll be the first to admit that specialization is very useful, but it can also lead to a narrowing of interests and perspectives. My liberal arts education has protected me from this. It has given me a broader vision than I would have otherwise had.

I now believe that every student should take at least one philosophy course and a few science courses before they graduate. The liberal arts discipline can ensure that future business and political leaders should know at least a thing or two about ethics and science because they will make personal or political or financial decisions on energy, the environment, housing, public health, and so on.

This liberal arts education has taught me that we can pursue economic growth based on humanitarian values. It has taught me that empathy and human values are not abstractions, but core qualities needed for humanity to survive and thrive.

And most importantly, it has taught me this: a holistic approach that combines science, business and the arts is not romantic foolishness, but pragmatic wisdom.

We need this, and we need it now.

*Radhika is a Vietnamese-Indian student at the Colby College in Maine, U.S. This essay is adapted from a prize-winning speech she delivered at the college last semester.

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