Anyone who has paid attention to philanthropy and education policy in America knows that there is an ongoing debate between proponents of STEM education and defenders of the liberal arts. As funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM) has ballooned into one of the most active fields of philanthropy for years, with dozens of foundations and corporations making higher ed and K-12 STEM education their primary objective (and that's putting aside significant government support), defenders of the liberal arts have come out to the defense.
But the debate is all too often characterized by three common errors:
The first error comes from proponents of STEM who see no benefit in a liberal education. Most of the arguments on this camp rely on the assumption that the ultimate purpose of education is to boost the economy at the national level and to provide its students with financially successful careers at the individual level. Enough said. I do not have enough space presently to cover the vast distance that separates us.
The second error comes from those who try to reconcile the liberal arts and STEM by arguing that "humanities" programs produce better scientists or businessmen. While this position can in some ways be true, it still misses the point of a liberal education and feeds into the same prejudice of the aforementioned position.
And the third and most irksome error comes from those well meaning persons who equate a liberal education with the so-called “humanities” – as if math and science were somehow less human.
Liberal education is not (solely) definable in terms of a specific subject matter. It is not the subject – say, French poetry or U.S. history – that determines the character of studies as liberal. It is rather the way in which a formal discipline is taken up: whenever it is being studied for its own sake, whenever genuine wonder is present – that’s when liberal education is taking place.
To put it starkly: physics and biology can be studied as formal liberal disciplines, and at the same time philosophy and literature can be studied in a most illiberal way.
Yet much of the public conversation is framed in terms of what subject matter students are taking in school or majoring in college, rather than the way their education is actually taking place. Jacob Klein, an American educator of the 20th century who taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, made some important distinctions on the matter in an essay titled "The Idea of Liberal Education."
Take science and history. Both subjects are studied on the basis of exploratory questions (science seeks to discover the not yet known, history to recover the once known). But both also depend on a different kind of questioning, whose presence defines their study as liberal or not, which Klein calls “metastrophic” questioning:
“We do occasionally stop altogether and face the familiar as if for the first time – anything: a person, a street, the sky, a fly. The overwhelming impression on such occasions is the strangeness of the thing we contemplate. This state of mind requires detachment, and I am not at all certain to what extent we can contrive its presence. We suddenly do not feel at home in this world of ours. We take a deep look at things, at people, at words, with eyes blind to the familiar. We re-flect. Plato has a word for it: metastrophe or periagoge, a turnabout, a conversion. We detach ourselves from all that is familiar to us; we change the direction of our inquiry; we do not explore the unknown. We wonder.” (emphasis added)
Now, formal disciplines – say, biology – come into being as the result of our human ability to detach ourselves from our familiar experiences, to turn about, to ask the radical question “why” and to persist in it, and at the same time pursuing the exploratory questioning within the horizon in which we live.
Education is therefore two-sided: the disciplines and sciences can also be applied disciplines and sciences; theoretical problems can have direct relation to our doing and making, to our practical life. But it is only when we dedicate ourselves to the radical, “metastrophic questioning,” as Klein would put it, that formal education becomes liberal education.
The problem with much of contemporary education (and its funding) – whether it be in the “humanities” or in the sciences – is that it remains in the realm of the exploratory and the applied, and it seldom sees the need to seriously and persistently aim towards the realm of wonder.