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

Nanaimo RCMP patch
Domestic violence on the rise in Port Alberni

COVID-19 still affecting domestic violence stats, says Alberni RCMP’s top cop

Emergency crews respond to an apartment fire on Tuesday, Oct. 20. (PHOTO COURTESY JERRY FEVENS)
Port Alberni RCMP investigate possible arson

Fire was contained but three people displaced in aftermath

Graham Hughes, front, who ran as an independent candidate in the B.C. provincial election, sits with half a dozen supporters in front of Our Home on Eighth shelter, where Hughes is protesting the way homelessness has been dealt with in Port Alberni, on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
Protesters occupy Port Alberni’s shelter

Former election candidate leads sit-in outside to protest homelessness

Josie Osborne and her campaign team watch the results roll in during B.C.’s provincial election on Saturday night. (Photo courtesy of Josie Osborne)
Tofino expected to wait until New Year to elect new mayor after Josie Osborne wins provincial seat

Josie Osborne is the West Coast’s new MLA and that means Tofino needs a new mayor.

FILE – Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides the latest update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the province during a press conference in the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, October 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. shatters COVID-19 records with 817 weekend cases; masks now expected indoors

Three people have died over the past three reporting periods

The voting station mimicked a real voting station in Nicole Choi’s classroom at Chilliwack middle school on Oct. 22, 2020, where students had to show their ID (student cards), be checked off a list, and mark a secret ballot behind a screen. (Jessica Peters/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. students choose NDP majority in mock election

More than 90,000 youth took part in school-based election process

Crew transport bus at the Trans Mountain pipeline project work site in Burnaby, March 2020. (Trans Mountain)
Check your workplace COVID-19 safety plans, Dr. Henry urges

Masks in public spaces, distance in lunchrooms for winter

B.C.’s Court of Appeal is in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Judgment reserved in Surrey Six slayings appeals

Six men were killed in suite 1505 of the Balmoral Tower in Whalley on Oct. 19, 2007

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

Kelowna City Hall has been vandalized overnight. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
Kelowna City Hall hit by anti-pandemic vandalism

Graffiti condemning the virus appears overnight on City Hall

FILE – A woman smokes a marijuana joint at a “Wake and Bake” legalized marijuana event in Toronto on October 17, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov
Home nurse visits could play big role in reducing cannabis use, smoking in young mothers

The program, dubbed the BC Healthy Connections Project, involves public health nursing home visits

Candice Woloshyn prepares her flower beds for the next season at her ‘Dirty Girl Flowers’ farm in Merville. Despite the pandemic, Woloshyn was able to sustain her homegrown business as community members opted for regular deliveries of fresh cut flowers. Photo by Binny Paul/ Campbell River Mirror.
Vancouver Island flower farmers were blooming as the pandemic wilted everything else

Floriculturists saw increased subscriptions as fresh flowers became a ‘sight for sore eyes’ during isolation

Most Read