STEM (Pixabay.com)

OPINION: Stop telling students to study STEM over humanities for post-COVID world

‘Humanities play an essential role in aspects of global competence which have not been the focus of the STEM’

by Alan Sears, University of New Brunswick and Penney Clark, University of British Columbia

Finally, someone has figured out how to put an end to students wasting their lives in the quixotic pursuit of knowledge associated with the humanities.

The government of Australia announced in June a reform package that would lower fees for what are considered “job-relevant” university courses while raising the cost of some humanities courses. Under the proposed changes, “a three-year humanities degree would more than double in cost.” English and language course fees, however, are among those being lowered.

These reforms are proposed as part of larger changes to post-secondary funding as Australian universities, like Canadian and other global universities, find themselves grappling with the seismic impacts of COVID-19.

They also reflect larger trends towards what’s considered market-friendly learning. Around the world, educational policy-makers have chipped away for years at the position of the humanities in school curricula at every level to make more room for the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The humanities is typically considered to include the arts, history, literature, philosophy and languages.

Educational reforms

The Australian reforms are intended to boost enrolment where the government says more “job-ready graduates” will be needed “in health care, teaching and STEM related fields, including engineering and IT.”

The cost changes apply per course, so that “by choosing electives that respond to employer needs … students can reduce the total cost of their study.” The proposed reforms aim to make it cheaper to undertake post-secondary studies in areas of expected job growth.

Such reform efforts are part of a larger global push aimed at establishing the STEM disciplines as central to public education.

In New Brunswick, this has been illustrated in a series of educational reforms emphasizing the centrality of economic priorities to shaping public education. These reforms promote a focus on literacy (not literature), numeracy and science. For example, the province’s 10-year education plan, published in 2016 speaks of reviewing “… high school course selections in the arts, trades and technology, with a view to revising, developing and clustering courses to address labour market and industry requirements.…”

The New Brunswick reforms, and many other such efforts, have largely excluded input from teachers, parents, students and local communities. They’ve focused on the standardization of education systems, while ignoring global lessons about how more holistic approaches to education often produce significant system-wide academic success.

The new Australian policy takes a market-oriented approach focused on using financial incentives to encourage certain choices. Australia is definitely ahead of the curve on this one. Or is it?

Economic goals in public education

No single organization has had more impact on the global move toward prioritizing economic goals in public education than the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), through its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

PISA is an international testing program that has traditionally assessed student achievement in reading, mathematics and science in almost 100 countries and regions around the world. The results generate press and shape discussions and decisions about educational policy and practice in important ways.

One group of education scholars writes that “PISA has arguably become the most influential educational assessment today,” and emphasizes that the program was developed to assist the OECD with its economic mandate and that this rationale informed the assessment’s framework and continues to guide its development.

In recent times, growing social and cultural fragmentation have created challenges for the world’s economies and prompted a rethink even in the OECD of the kind of education necessary for a more comprehensive prosperity. In 2018 it moved the PISA program beyond the three traditional subject areas to begin assessing “global competence,” which it describes as “a multidimensional capacity.”

Learning for ‘global competence’

According to the OECD, “globally competent individuals can examine local, global and intercultural issues, understand and appreciate different perspectives and world views, interact successfully and respectfully with others, and take responsible action toward sustainability and collective well-being.”

The OECD believes “educating for global competence can boost employability,” and also believes that all subjects can introduce global competence.

It seems to us learning history and other humanities disciplines are effective ways to foster the elements of global competence outlined in their description.

In our recent book, The Arts and the Teaching of History, we make the case that sustained and systematic engagement with the humanities — including, history, literature and visual and commemorative art — is effective in fostering a number of positive humanistic and civic outcomes and competencies.

These include: complex comprehension of history and literature and the nature of truth; nuanced understanding of the relationships between history and collective memory and how those operate in the formation of individual and group identities; and, particularly important in contemporary Australia, Canada and elsewhere, engagement with Indigenous perspectives.

This is not to argue that the teaching of history, literature or other humanities subjects is without criticism. As they have appeared in school curriculum these subjects have often been overly focused on so-called western civilization. Marie Battiste, Mi’kmaw educator and professor in educational foundations at the University of Saskatchewan, in her book Visioning a Mi’kmaw Humanities: Indigenizing the Academy explores reframing the humanities to create:

“ … a vision of society and education where knowledge systems and languages are reinforced, not diluted, where they can respectfully gather together without resembling each other, and where peoples can participate in the cultural life of a society, education and their community.”

Appreciating different worldviews

Does anyone really believe that in the midst of vigorous public debates about what it means to build a just society, the world needs more people without the educational background to understand where their societies came from and how they developed? In the age of Black Lives Matter, rising Indigenous activism and substantial public engagement we need to educate people to take responsible action toward collective well-being.

Of course, STEM subjects are critical in fostering understanding of issues related to sustainability and collective well-being. They are a necessary, but only a partial, aspect of any child’s education. The humanities play an essential role in aspects of global competence which have not been the focus of the STEM subjects.

If the study of history, society, culture or the arts dies, our societies may learn the hard way that it takes more than narrow job preparation to ensure that our students will flourish as human beings. Such flourishing includes willingness and ability to engage with the challenging and urgent social, cultural, environmental and political issues with which they are confronted in these times.

Alan Sears and Penny Clark receive funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

B.C. taxpayers could be on the hook for upwards of $27 million in total payouts for MLA pensions. (file)
Pensions are adding up for defeated, retiring MLAs: Taxpayers’ group

Martin and Throness would get $28,000 per year, lifetime pensions estimated ~$700K

Halloween enhanced image of a pumpkin patch to get you going. (Ryan Dyck Photography)
Halloween displays around Chilliwack are always a treat

Here is a list of addresses where some of the more creative Halloween displays can be viewed

Google Maps screenshot taken at 7:56 a.m., Oct. 29.
TRAFFIC: Westbound Highway 1 crash between Chilliwack and Abbotsford

Left lane is blocked, traffic backed up to No. 3 Road

A woman holds a packet of contraceptive pills. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
Chilliwack women’s organization among those lobbying for free contraception

Ann Davis Society says while it’s a women’s issue, all of society would benefit from program

Jeremy Bull, budtender at Dutch Bros. Buds outside the new store on Vedder Road in Chilliwack. (Jennifer Feinberg/ The Chilliwack Progress)
Cannabis retail shops in Chilliwack roll through the pandemic

Opening Chilliwack cannabis store in pandemic was ‘interesting’ says a licensed store manager

A woman wears a face mask and plastic gloves while browsing books as a sticker on the floor indicates a one-way direction of travel between shelves of books at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch, after it and four other branches reopened with limited services, in Vancouver, on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
B.C. reports 234 new COVID cases, 1 death of senior who had attended small birthday party

Roughly 5,700 people are isolating due to being exposed to a confirmed case

Vancouver Island-based Wilson’s Transportation has expanded to fill some of the routes left unserviced by Greyhound as of Nov. 1, 2018. (Black Press files)
B.C. bus companies say they need help to survive COVID-19

Like airlines, motor coaches have lost most of their revenue

A deer was spotted in October 2020 in Prince Rupert, B.C., with a bright pink yoga ball stuck in its antlers. (Kayla Vickers/Chronicles Of Hammy The Deer Official Page)
Hammy 2.0? Prince Rupert deer spotted with bright pink yoga ball stuck in antlers

The BC Conservation Officer Service is aware of the deer roaming around the city

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Kelowna Mountie hit with 2nd lawsuit in 2 months for alleged assault

Const. Julius Prommer is accused of breaking a woman’s knee during while responding to a noise complaint

Hirdeypal Batth, 24, has been charged with sexual assault and forcible confinement in relation to an incident in August 2020. (VPD handout)
Man, 24, charged with sex assault after allegedly posing as Uber driver in Vancouver

Investigators believe there could be more victims outside of the Vancouver area

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. Premier John Horgan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee arrive for annual Cascadia conference in Vancouver, Oct. 10, 2018. They have agreed to coordinate the permanent switch to daylight saving time. (B.C. government)
B.C. still awaiting U.S. approval to eliminate daylight saving time

Clocks going back one hour Nov. 1 in Washington too

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with US Vice-President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
A Biden presidency could mean good news for Canadian environment policy: observers

Experts and observers say even a U.S. outside the Paris agreement may ultimately end up in the same place

Most Read