Over the last two decades, an educational narrative around the worthiness of STEM education has gathered tempo relentlessly.
Fueled by an unchallenged belief that the more youngsters learn science, technology, mathematics, and engineering, it will generate a far more lucrative, resilient and diverse labor market, we have dramatically reduced the appeal of liberal humanities and arts as academic fields.
As it frequently does, the rationale has centered on the quantitatively measurable profits on return: Money. If you study a STEM subject, you’re more likely to land a higher paid job when you graduate.
Bankers, accountants, and researchers earn much more and contribute more generously to the labor market than philosophers, artists, and historians.
Every field of humanities in the U.S has experienced an instant drop in majors. The same has happened in other countries too.
But it’s also flawed. Though STEM subjects carry great value unquestionably, they’re only part of the equation. Our obsession with them has generated a warped knowledge of the way the labor market works so that as we face the most grueling financial slump because of the Great Depression, it’s paramount we widen our point of view.
Yes, the future of work will be data-centric, technology-based, and digital; however, the STEM-skilled portion of the labor force needs a non-STEM-skilled contingent to thrive and balance it out thoughtfully. Human beings’ agility, emotional intelligence, and creativeness will become redundant. So too will the foreign languages and other primary transferable skills as the capability to communicate, reason, and critically think. We can’t afford to test that hypothesis.
‘Valuable Lives For All’
Three influential educational institutions in the U.K. – the British Academy, the Arts Council, and the London School of Economics – launched a plan to celebrate the worthiness of non-STEM disciplines. Under the acronym SHAPE, they’re championing the incurred power of social sciences, humanities, the arts for people, and the economy.
“SHAPE is a fresh collective name for those themes that help us understand ourselves, others, and the individuals’ world all around us,” they write. “They provide us with the forms and methods of expression we need to build better, deeper, more colorful, and even more valuable lives for any.”
Hetan Shah, leader of the British Academy, says that like STEM, SHAPE subjects are heterogeneous. He says that SHAPE subjects “shared focus on people and societies generate basic ideas, insights, expertise, and understanding, which together have a profound impact in a wide variety of ways.
He points to the creative industries in the U.K. as a prime exemplary case of why SHAPE subject matter. It’s one of the country’s fastest-growing sectors and today contribute about £110 billion to the overall economy annually, but “we overlook the creative sectors because they are made up of many small, fast-growing entrepreneurial companies.”
SHAPE graduates also play an enormous role in how our social companies and systems function, “from our diplomacy service to the health care system – which benefits people enormously.”
Finally, he says that leadership, management, rhetoric, and analysis are critical skills harnessed by SHAPE and are “essential in every human being organizations.”
“We are witnessing the ability to structure narratives become increasingly important in industries like digital marketing, the video games industry, and other digital applications,” Shah says.
Keeping Us Sane
These arguments are gaining traction beyond academia.
At the beginning of 2019, LinkedIn published research that showed that a few of the most popular job skills by businesses were creativity, persuasion, and cooperation – all skills associated with SHAPE subjects.
Superfast innovation means that specialized skills are, of course relevant, the comprehensive research concluded, but “the rise of AI is merely making soft skills increasingly important, as they are the type of skills robots can’t automate precisely.”
Writing in the Observer newspapers recently, Peter Bazalgette, the chair of U.K. broadcaster ITV, says that Covid-19 experience indeed revealed the potential risks of undervaluing the things historically known as “tender” and centering too much on STEM skills.
He says that whenever it comes to tackling the problem, we’re always told that it’s a subject of science. But that’s only one area of the report: “The trusted media that inform our citizenry and provides us resilience in a period of turmoil is itself the merchandise of sustained investment in trained journalists,” he writes. “The federal government furloughing and loan strategies, made to save companies and jobs, are conceived by economists,” he continues.
“The TV shows, the J.K. Rowling children’s books released online and the digital theater that all lift our spirits in lockdown – these are the products of our creative arts,” Bazalgette says. “Science and research, we hope, helps to keep us alive,” he concludes. “However, the arts and humanities keep us sane.”