Dubbed Next Generation Connecticut, an unprecedented plan to invest $2.1 billion into science, technology, engineering and math — STEM — at the University of Connecticut will strengthen the school's competitiveness and productivity. But there lurks a danger: If not handled sensibly, the plan may create a climate that clouds out other essential disciplines — namely, the humanities.
I am all for STEM (I love math), I fully support UConn President Susan Herbst and Provost Mun Y. Choi and I am excited by a change to a more STEM-centered climate. But what is important is balance: STEM and humanities. As attention increases toward STEM, balance is difficult to maintain.
That's why teaching the humanities at our universities is more important now than ever.
The road to an unhealthy imbalance between STEM and the humanities is natural and easy. If students and parents hear and see little beyond STEM-focused discussion — in the news, in college orientations, in the university catalogs — they may, and likely will, fall prey to thinking that the humanities are at best unimportant and at worst to be rejected as a weird ritual of bygone times.
Such thinking would be an embarrassment to higher education. The title "college graduate" would be carried by people dismissive of the humanities because — and only because — of their ignorance. An institution that emphasizes only STEM-centered topics is not a university; it's a trade school, nothing more.
We're also bearing witness to the rise of shallow discourse, ushered in by a new trinity: mobile devices, social networks and never-ending "news." Channels are evaluated not by the reliability of their information; they're evaluated strictly — and swiftly — by "likes" and "dislikes," by "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down." If you don't like it, give it a thumbs down and your world — crafted in your own self-image — will soon get better.
The ease of customized worlds fuels the idea that taste dictates everything, that there are no real facts, no absolute truths. But this idea is absurd; and our college graduates need to know as much.
We expect our chemists, physicists and biologists to teach the basic facts of their fields at universities. But we should not for a moment think that the humanities are different. Philosophy, for example, teaches us that there are facts, plain and simple, that there are absolute truths, not just "true for me" or "for you." It may be that it's very difficult to know some of these facts; but that doesn't mean that they don't exist.
Imagine a society incapable of making political or economic decisions because its members refuse to agree on simple facts. They already "disliked" them, and don't understand how to reflect upon and potentially revise past decisions. Sadly, such a society is not hard to imagine.
So what, in the end, do we want "college graduate" to mean?
In just over two months, 3,500 young men and women will be given the title "UConn graduate." We expect that they will be proficient in the skills of their field, be they techniques in engineering, working in science labs, financial analysis or a host of other familiar trade skills.
But is that it? Surely not. We also expect an understanding of the historical context in which we all live, and the philosophical decisions that led us here. And, above all, we expect them to be valued members of a society that aims to be rational and just. Is this too much to expect?
Imagine that you're a recruiter for an entry-level position at a pharmaceutical company. You have hundreds of applications from recent college graduates, all of whom enjoyed a STEM-centered climate. The top two candidates are chemistry majors with high marks in their science classes, good lab work and successful internship experience. But one of them also excelled in philosophy and was the president of the history club.
Which one would you choose?
We are entering a STEM-centered climate in higher education. This can be a good climate change, provided that it is balanced by the weight of serious engagement with humanities.
Jc Beall is a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, and is co-founder and director of the UConn Logic Group.