STEM Is a Liberal Art

People have forgotten that math and science, and not just subjects like literature, art and philosophy, have long been counted among the liberal arts. After all, liberal arts encompass the knowledge and skills each person needs to participate actively in civic life. Yet many still draw a deep, dark line separating science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) from, well, everything else. That serves no one well.

A recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences might help bridge the divide. The Heart of the Matter makes an impassioned case for supporting the arts and humanities in addition to STEM. The report finds that all people, even engineers or computer scientists, need a good dose of the arts and humanities to understand the human significance of the work they do. Point well taken.

But that argument cuts both ways: Just as people in STEM occupations would do well to have a firm grounding in the arts and humanities, everyone else needs a strong foundation in STEM. In 2011, a Georgetown study found that the vast majority of jobs now require STEM skills. If you wanted to break into marketing 20 years ago, it may have been enough to be very good at writing copy. Now you're more likely to get hired if you understand the statistics that underlie modern market research. If you wanted to become a designer decades ago, you focused on visual art. Now, not only do you need to master design software, you should also have a firm grasp on data visualization and the technology behind interactive websites and apps. Even salespeople need to have a much stronger knowledge of technology as the products they sell become more sophisticated.

It doesn't help that some STEM advocates have derided "softer" subjects like English or history as a waste of time and effort. That just prolongs the absurd battle among the disciplines. After all, who really believes that everyone should get a STEM job? If everyone were an engineer, for example, we'd have a lot of unemployed engineers -- and the rest would work for nickels and dimes.

But all people must have the tools to understand the rapidly changing world around them, and that world and the associated civic decisions are only getting more bewildering to those who lack a sophisticated grasp of the STEM fields. Yet for all the attention STEM subjects have recently received, we still have many miles to go before we actually deliver on all that STEM rhetoric. Almost every state requires high school graduates to have taken four years of English, but only 18 states require four years of math. Even fewer require four years of science. Texas, which once led the way in setting rigorous high school graduation requirements, recently reduced its requirements in math and science to just three years each. But this is not a zero-sum game: we are not looking to focus on STEM at the expense of other disciplines. We are looking to ensure that all students have the opportunity to master the knowledge and skills they need for adult life.

We must never forget what the STEM subjects have in common with sister disciplines like literature and history. Yes, they help us get good jobs, but they also help us grasp what it means to be human and live a good life. That is why STEM is truly among the liberal arts.