President Obama outlined in his State of the Union address last Tuesday a series of bold education initiatives including “reward[ing] schools that … create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) — the skills today’s employers are looking for.” The president has long emphasized the need to improve STEM education, including a provision in his Race to the Top program that awards schools more for progress in STEM fields and proposing the creation of a STEM Master Teacher Corps.
Yet, President Obama fails to realize our country’s broader educational failures. We need a bold, reaffirmed commitment to liberal arts education that creates the citizens of the 21st century and not just the technocrats.
While it is true, according to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), that U.S. 15-year-olds consistently rank below average in mathematics and on average in science on compared to other OECD nations, our nation has a multitude of educational deficiencies. The Department of Education reported in 2006 that not even 1% of American high school students study Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian or Urdu, while the same PISA study put us at 26th in foreign language education. Learning a second language not only makes students more competitive in the tourism industry that the Obama administration claims to support, but also more competitive in the global job market.
Additionally, the World Values Survey recently ranked the U.S. only 14th among 54 surveyed countries in arts participation. A study conducted by the Conference Board showed that most surveyed CEOs believe that creativity is increasingly important for new hires, yet our educational system continually emphasizes computational skills over innovation and creative thinking. Despite all this, the National Endowment for the Arts received only slightly more than 50% of its inflation-adjusted funding in 2012 than in 1992.
The humanities have reaped economic benefits in the past and they will again in the future. Where would the women’s rights movement that pushed to expand women’s participation in the labor force have been with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique? How would the civil rights movement have faired without writers such as James Baldwin? The arts are a major catalyst for creating awareness and compassion in the name of social justice, without which all human beings would not have the opportunities to reach their full potential.
In an increasingly globalized world, the humanities are going to play an important role in helping people communicate and empathize with potential international partners. But President Obama made no mention in his State of the Union of education as an open-ended experience that only begins in the classroom. A true 21st-century education is not only going to emphasize STEM fields, but also the humanities and social sciences, physical education to curb the tide of obesity and foreign languages to increase trade and tourism. Every academic subject that encourages students to invest in themselves deserves increased attention, not just the ones that currently have the most job openings.
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