It seems to me…
“The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.” ~ Carl Rogers.
I willing accept being labeled an advocate for increased emphasis on technology and science in education – essentially the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subject areas. These are the skills most critically required in today’s rapidly evolving society and the area where insufficient graduates are choosing to pursue degrees. At a time when many people are either seeking employment or are under-employed, numerous positions are going unfilled as a result of skill-set mismatch. While important, it is not necessary for every student to complete a college degree though everyone should pursue as much education as possible.
No one should denigrate the value of a liberal education. But students must be cognizant of what skills will best serve them in the world awaiting them following completion of their studies regardless of how far they chose to continue their education.
Cardinal Newman[i] in 1854 defined a liberal education as a “broad exposure to the outlines of knowledge” for its own sake, rather than to acquire skills to practice a trade or to do a job. Probably the most important outcome of a liberal education is learning the connection between thought and word; skills of paramount importance to everyone regardless of field; it teaches how to read, analyze, dissect, and above all how to express oneself[ii] both in writing and speech.
A number of years ago as a hiring manager with a large aerospace corporation responsible for computer application development, I required new employees to give both a presentation and written report to their group and an outside customer within only a couple of weeks after being hired. Communications skills are invaluable and their performance provided a quick indication of their future benefit to our group.
My (at the time) undergraduate daughter mentioned she was considering changing her major to English literature. While not attempting to directly discourage her, I asked what she wanted to do following receiving her degree – and then pointed out that all of our administrative assistants had degrees in English (she completed her degree in history and now teaches K-12).
While teaching, when an advisee or other student indicated they were unsure of what to declare as a major, I always suggested delaying their choice and to concentrate primarily on liberal arts classes along with calculus. A liberal arts foundation is beneficial regardless of what field they later chose to pursue; calculus so they would not delay beginning their required subject material if their choice was science or technology.
It is the act of writing that forces one to think through and sort out their thoughts on a subject. Whether someone is a novelist, businessman, technologist, or historian, writing requires them to make choices and bring clarity and order to their thoughts. The ability to write and speak clearly is an invaluable skill regardless of what one does in life.
While I wish to consider myself an adequate writer, I in no way harbor any delusions of being better than adequate. For me, writing these comments serves as a vehicle to explore and gain understanding of my thoughts and beliefs on various subjects. Not until my thoughts are written are they any more than a string of incoherent impulses separated by gaping logical holes. Only through the attempt to commit thoughts to paper do they take on a logical consistency. When later revisited, remaining glaring inconsistencies frequently become all too apparent demanding further revision.
That said, educational institutions, in addition to teaching basic subject material, bear the responsibility to adequately prepare students to live in a world following their degree completion – again, a liberal education is beneficial. Unfortunately, most colleges and universities offer their programs without consideration of future employment implications. They fail to provide the skills the economy demands and employers pay for. Students majoring in humanities and liberal arts need skills required to create and survive in today’s world as it actually is rather than the world they wish for. Reality can be shocking to those unprepared to enter it.
Balance always is necessary. The value of STEM skills isn’t limited to those specific industries requiring that training, science and math classes equip students with analytical skills applicable in all fields regardless of what profession they might choose. Early exposure is critically important to inspiring students to pursue STEM education. As early an introduction as possible in the education process, starting in kindergarten, helps them make the connection between STEM subjects and our modern world. For many students, it can be the spark that sets them on the path to a rewarding career.
Several innovative programs are experimenting with new approaches to science and technology education. In one of those programs, students at P-Tech (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) schools attend high school for six years and earn an associate’s degree in addition to their high school diploma focused on STEM.
Only about 36 percent of current employment opportunities can be filled by people with only a high school diploma; half what it was in the 1970s. It is forecast that middle-class positions in the technology field will increase by 17.5 percent by 2020 when two-thirds of all jobs will require postsecondary education. Workers with an associate’s degree can earn up to 73 percent more than those with only a high school diploma[iii].
While 70 percent of high school graduates enter college, only 10 percent complete a 2-year associate’s program and 30 percent ever complete a 4-year degree program. Many college graduates with liberal arts degrees discover after completing their studies that not only are jobs unavailable but their earning potential is actually lower than that for someone with only an associate’s degree in a STEM-related field.
Many major corporations, including IBM, GE, and Microsoft, are experiencing difficulty hiring qualified workers have become involved in education. IBM claims to currently have over 1,800 available positions they are unable to fill.
At a time when costs are becoming increasingly prohibitive precluding all but the wealthy from attaining an education without incurring massive debt, shouldn’t we attempt to increase its relevance, value, and utility to those persevering through those corridors of learning?
That’s what I think, what about you?
[ii] Zakaria, Fareed. Sarah Lawrence College, 86th Commencement, http://www.slc.edu/news-events/events/commencement/fareed-zakaria-keynote.html, 23 May 2014.
[iii] Foroohar, Rana. The School That Will Get You A Job, Time, 24 February 2014, pp22-29.