Philosophy, Politics, and the End of Liberal Arts Education
by Adam C. Pelser
From elementary schools to colleges and graduate schools, education in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is widely considered far more valuable to society—because it is believed to be more technologically and economically productive—than education in the humanities, such as philosophy, classical literature, history, and the other non-STEM liberal arts. At its most extreme, this valuation of STEM education over non-STEM education takes the form of blatant denigration of study in the humanities.
U.S. senator and former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, for example, has made a habit of disparaging the study of philosophy in his remarks about education reform, repeatedly joking along the campaign trail that “the job market for ancient Greek philosophers has been very tight for 2,000 years.” In one seemingly well-intentioned attempt during a Republican debate to promote the value of technical trade schools, Rubio made the arguably false (and ungrammatical) claim that “welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
Such devaluation of the humanities is by no means a distinctively American attitude. In June of 2015, Japan’s Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura ordered Japan’s national universities to begin taking “active steps to abolish [social science and humanities] organizations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs.”1
PHILOSOPHY AND FUZZINESS
As a philosophy professor, I am grateful to be on the faculty at an institution that remains committed to education in the full spectrum of the liberal arts. Yet there nevertheless exists here at my institution a strong culture of valuing STEM over and above the non-STEM liberal arts. This is reflected in the fact that our students (and even some of our instructors) refer to STEM courses as “tech” courses and to non-STEM courses as “fuzzy” courses. While I do not think most of them use the term fuzzy intentionally as a term of derision, a negative connotation is apparent…
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