Gentle liberal arts pushback blooming in state

SEATTLE — A well-rounded member of society requires more than just classes in math and science. That’s according to the provost at The Evergreen State College, a biologist by training who is convening a group of academics this week to talk about giving a gentle pushback against the current focus on science and math education.

Michael Zimmerman has had a growing unease with the increased focus on science, technology, engineering and math or STEM education. He agrees that science and math instruction needs to improve, but he doesn’t think that improvement should come at the cost of shortchanging the liberal arts.

“I was concerned that there wasn’t a voice of liberal arts in public education,” he said.

Zimerman sent a letter to every public and private college and university in the state, saying he didn’t want to let the dialogue about the future of education get away from them.

“I expected 10 to 15 people to be interested,” he said. Instead, every college and university responded and most sent representatives to a meeting Thursday on the Evergreen campus in Olympia to talk about what, if anything, they should do as a group to keep liberal arts from disappearing from Washington colleges and universities.

The idea of a group pushing for more emphasis on liberal arts doesn’t worry the statewide nonprofit organization pushing for more emphasis on science and technology education, Washington STEM.

“We believe that studying the liberal arts feeds academic success in general and success in STEM disciplines in particular,” said Sandi Everlove, interim CEO of Washington STEM. She said scientists and engineers need the critical thinking skills and ability to design new solutions that come from liberal arts coursework.

The meeting at Evergreen came just two days after President Barack Obama announced plans for a new program to recognize and financially reward the best public school teachers in the nation in the science, technology, engineering and math. The gathering follows by a few months the Legislature’s approval for two new STEM initiatives.

Washington State University and the University of Washington were given millions of extra dollars to accept hundreds more engineering students. And discussion has begun on allowing universities to charge different rates of tuition for different majors, which would make science and engineering studies more expensive for students but would help tuition more closely match the cost to provide the more expensive labs and facilities needed for some majors.

A discussion about the value of refocusing on some of the less practical aspects of college life — from anthropology to sculpture — may seem a little frivolous to some people considering Washington’s economic struggles and the past few years of deep budget cuts for higher education.

But Zimmerman says it’s obvious to him that American society is already suffering from the de-emphasis on subjects like history, culture and philosophy.

The nation’s public discourse about politics and ideas has deteriorated and Americans are losing their ability to think critically and have a civilized and factual debate about controversial topics because they are being educated too narrowly, Zimmerman said.

In higher education, there’s a whole package of things we should be doing to build well rounded citizens, he said.

“There’s so much more to living than just building the next great airplane,” Zimmerman said. “That’s a great thing, but it’s not the only great thing.”

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