Those of us who teach undergraduates are familiar with the trend revealed in these data. Baccalaureate graduates typically have earned more course credits in the humanities (about 17% as defined here) than in STEM fields (about 13%). STEM majors earn fewer credits in the humanities than do students majoring in other areas; and students majoring in the humanities, business, social sciences, and education apparently earn no more than a required minimum of their credits in STEM courses. This picture has puzzled me throughout my career. Why do STEM students avoid humanities courses and students in non-STEM majors avoid STEM courses?
Often repeated explanations include: “STEM courses are hard, not interesting, not relevant to the student’s interests, and/or boring;” “there isn’t room in a STEM student’s demanding curriculum for more humanities;” “humanities courses won’t help a STEM student achieve her goals and get a job;” and “STEM courses aren’t important for a humanities student’s goals.” It seems to me that all of these excuses point in the same general direction: we, the faculty, fail to make clear why breadth in general education is important and how courses outside a student’s areas of primary interest can be valuable. We fail to design and offer high-quality STEM and humanities courses that are appealing, interesting, and engaging to the students as well as appropriate as general education courses (as opposed to the introductory courses required for most majors). And we fail to make room in baccalaureate curricula for more courses outside a student’s major.
I think we do a fairly good job of preparing students to build careers in special fields represented by the majors they choose. Thus, American colleges and universities produce well-trained and skilled graduates in fields as diverse as accounting, chemistry, instrumental music, molecular biology, premedical studies, psychology, and political science. But do we do as well in educating our students to be good citizens who will live rewarding and enriched lives? We should want our graduates to be able to understand articles in the popular press about politics and advances in STEM fields, to recognize and understand references to literature in what they read, to be numerate, and to have some appreciation of the fine arts. We should want our students to become informed and responsible voters.
From my perspective as a STEM faculty member who cherishes the arts and humanities as well as interdisciplinary experiences and thinking, the challenge is quite clear. I cannot express it more effectively than my good friend and colleague Jerrold Meinwald, who wrote in his preface to Science and the Educated American: A Core Component of Liberal Education, the book we co-edited in 2010 for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (available online):
“Clearly, we need offerings that students will enjoy rather than dread. We need to provide undergraduates with insights and understanding of the scientific enterprise that will serve them well throughout their lives. Ideally, we would like to help our institutions of higher learning produce successive generations of students who see science for what it is: a creative, exciting, adventurous, and at the same time, profoundly useful human endeavor!”
— John G. Hildebrand, University of Arizona