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STEM and the Humanities: a False Dichotomy

2013 Graduate College Distinguished Lecture

University of Illinois

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

University of Illinois Graduate College Address Urbana, IL
United States

April 17, 2013

Accordingly, stewards of national power – and in a democracy that means all of   us – have no choice except to strive to understand more fully the human condition. Livelihoods and life itself demands attention to wide horizons. As important as controversies of the day, politics of the moment, may be, they are generally surface concerns.  To understand problems on the surface it is necessary to know the depths below: the history and culture of one's own society and that of others, even the most distant.

Just as we need an infrastructure of roads and bridges, we need an infrastructure of ideas. As the legislation establishing the NEH affirms: "The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation's high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit."

Yet, there appears to be a gathering sentiment, symbolized by recent initiatives in the political arena that higher education should move away from an emphasis on the liberal arts to teaching discrete job skills. The assumption that jobs are the number one issue for most Americans is valid; a conclusion, however, that the humanities are not central to job creation is mistaken. Indeed, such a conclusion could too easily lead to policy prescriptions that undercut American competiveness and the national interest itself.

A myth of our times is that the humanities are good for the soul but irrelevant to the pocket book. Actually they are central to the creation of jobs and long­ term American competitiveness.

Testifying before Congress a year ago, Hunter Rawlings, President of the Association of American Universities, noted  that  a survey of employers by his association indicated that 73%, rejected the trend towards narrow technical training and wanted colleges and universities to place more emphasis on critical thinking and  analytic reasoning. A more recent study done by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 78% of employers preferred job applicants knowledgeable about global issues and societies and cultures outside the U.S.; 80% found written and  oral communication key; and 82% favored those with civic knowledge, skills, and judgment essential for contributing to the community and to our democratic society.

It is true that many jobs such as in the building trades are skill-centric, but job creation itself requires leadership which in turn requires an understanding of community and the world. Change and its acceleration characterize the times. With each passing year jobs evolve, become more sophisticated.  Training for one skill set may be of little assistance for another.  On the other hand, studies that stimulate the imagination and nourish capacities to analyze and think outside the box are well-suited to the challenges of change.  They make coping with the unprecedented a manageable endeavor.

What is needed in a world in flux is a new understanding of the meaning of the basics in education.  Traditionally, the basics are about the three "R's," which in my state of Iowa are sometimes defined as "'readin, 'ritin, and 'restlin." However defined, they are critical. Nonetheless, they are insufficient. What are also needed are studies that provide perspective on our times and foster citizen understanding of their own communities, other cultures, and the creative process.

To understand and compete in the world we need a fourth "R," what for lack of a precise moniker might be described as "reality" – which includes not only relevant knowledge of the world near and far but the imaginative capacity to creatively apply knowledge to discrete issues and undertakings.