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"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." - Nelson Mandela

Unintended Consequences of America’s Rush Toward STEM Education 

By Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D.  |  March 22, 2016    National Center for Policy Analysis 

America is obsessed with the notion that education must shift away from the liberal arts and toward the teaching of specific technical skills if we are to survive in the 21st century, which is defined by technology and ordered by global competition.

New initiatives are being offered by companies and universities to expand STEM courses while politicians are jumping on the bandwagon to defund humanities majors, such as art history, which they consider irrelevant in the 21st century.

However, they are ignoring studies and editorials that have reported surveys of employers with hiring preferences for workers who possess creative thinking and communication skills rather than training in a narrow specialty.  According to Andrew Bennett, global CEO of Havas Worldwide, “One point of which we can all be certain is that the skills in use today won’t be sufficient to meet the needs of tomorrow. What matters is knowing how to accumulate knowledge and put it to smart use.”

The results of a 2013 study by Michigan State University of a group of MSU Honors College graduates from 1990-1995 support the importance of artistic endeavors for students. The team of multi-disciplinary researchers found that adults who had participated in arts and crafts during childhood filed more patents and founded more businesses in the STEM fields than those who had not.  The continued participation in artistic activities in adulthood also correlated with greater success as an inventor.

The researchers also found that the STEM graduates had a higher-than-average involvement in visual arts, acting, dance, and creative writing. Musical training seemed to be highly important with 93 percent of the study group having studied music at some point.

The conclusion was that artistic activity fostered out-of-the-box thinking in analogies, playing, intuition, and imagination needed to solve complex problems in STEM fields.

The researchers reported that the results of the study could be critical for the revitalization of the U.S. economy.

If so, then the direction of education and the dollars invested in K-12 become highly important.   Do we go for broke with STEM education and de-emphasize the liberal arts? 

Until more recently, the United States was unique in offering a well-rounded education that emphasized creativity.  Millions of American inventions have provided a higher quality of life for people around the world. 

Yet our students score poorly on international tests while Asian students score high.  Asian educational systems are rigid with much emphasis on high-stakes testing but not on creativity and critical thinking.  Parents provide tutors for their children who often study late into the night so they can score well on tests and get into a good college.

Does this sound familiar?

Although Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have highly skilled workforces, they are not innovative.  

Jack Ma, founder of China’s Alibaba, said in a speech that, because Chinese students are so tied to their studies, there is no time to have fun or experiment.  He explained his creativity ability – which led to his founding the behemoth internet company -- was a result of attending a university where he able to have fun in learning.

Surveys show that Chinese and Japanese employers are complaining about their well-educated workforces that do poorly in creativity and problem solving.

Asian countries have looked at the U.S. and our long history of brilliant innovations and most of them are trying to add features of a liberal education to their systems. 

These countries contend this is an economic necessity for them!

If we are to survive against global competitors in the 21st century, why is America so determined to abandon an education system that has produced a highly successful people for a system that produces a non-innovative workforce? 

Why is adding liberal education to their systems an economic necessity for Asian countries but not for the United States?


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