Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Importance of Ideas: Higher Education, STEM, and the Liberal Arts

Those of us who work in higher education know that STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) has been on a tear lately. Long the recipient of the largest share of research dollars, STEM has become the darling of politicians, pundits, and university presidents everywhere. If you're in STEM, or at a STEM-heavy school, life is good now - because who doesn't want to help create more engineers to solve tomorrow's problems?

I'm lucky enough to work in that environment myself. My employer has an excellent college of engineering & computer science and a strong enterprise in biomedical research - two of the hottest areas out there. We just opened at $30 million research building for neuroscience and biomedical engineering. Since all of these areas have graduate programs (both master's and PhD), I'm thrilled - it's my job to support our graduate education enterprise and that job is made really easy when we have programs that can ride today's hot trends.

In the shadow of all of this STEM mania, the liberal arts have had a tough time of it. Long the punching-bag for politicians, the attacks have gotten worse in recent years. When Time magazine asked "Is college worth it?", they weren't thinking about mechanical engineers and biomedical researchers - they were thinking about English and sociology majors. It's been tough being in the liberal arts (including my own intellectual native land of political science, singled out to get cut out of the NSF funding pie) in recent years.

And yet, I can't help thinking of last week's tragedy in Charleston, SC. I wrote on Friday that one of the key takeaways for me from that incident: ideas kill. Since ideas are what we work with in higher education, we have a particular responsibility to help make things better by engaging the ideas that lead to these kinds of horrific acts.

But we're not talking here about STEM anymore. As wonderful as engineering and science are, they won't solve our problems with racism, extremism, and violence. We could raise the NIH budget by an order of magnitude and add another $10 billion to the National Science Foundation, but we won't scratch the surface of these problems. Ideas about race, religion, identity, and society will continue to kill, unchecked and unfettered.

So as much as I love my STEM colleagues and support their work, this latest act of violence should remind us that some of the most important and meaningful problems won't be solved in a lab or with new technology. They are the problems that live in the minds and hearts of people - the kinds of problems that people in literature, theater, art, the humanities and social sciences have been grappling with for centuries.

If you want to cure diseases, fund biomedical research. If you want to invent cool new technologies to make our lives better, fund the engineers. But if you really want to address the persistent and wrenching issues of race, gender, extremism and violence - fund the liberal arts.

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