This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
One of our legislators recently referred to liberal arts degrees as "degrees to nowhere," arguing instead for graduating more students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields ("Lawmaker laments 'degrees to nowhere'," Tribune, Feb. 4). For Sen. Howard Stephenson, 21st century career opportunities and economic development are dependent on training exclusively in these areas.
Another legislator quoted in the story, Sen. Stuart Reid, said that more lab classes could be offered at the University of Utah if less money went to the social sciences. The U's president, Michael Young, aptly responded to the legislators' economic argument from an equally economic perspective: "it's people taking psychology and history courses that provide the resources to support STEM degrees."
Southern Utah University President Michael T. Benson reminded readers in a Tribune op-ed ("Liberal arts: Portal to anywhere," Opinion, Feb. 8) that the founders of the University of Deseret based its curriculum in literature, art and philosophy, a curriculum that enabled Benson to learn "how to write, think, reason, argue my point and listen to others' perspectives."
I once asked Jack Brittain, our VP for Technology Ventures Development, to guest lecture on how business constructs knowledge. He confounded my students by stating that over a lifetime liberal arts majors earn more on average than business majors.
Recently, the College of Business faculty revised its curriculum to require more integrated exposure to the humanities and social sciences so that its students might approach the financial world better able to apply nuanced thinking to complicated issues. The College of Engineering now includes a focus in writing and ethics in its undergraduate curriculum.
I'm reminded of the sage statement that the difference between good and bad scholarship depends on what one learns in one's specialized graduate program, but the difference between good and great scholarship depends on successfully acquiring critical and creative thinking skills as an undergraduate.
The same, I think, applies to career success.
While I champion increased investment in STEM programs, I reject the premise that it should depend on reductions to the liberal arts.
The two are not mutually exclusive. The liberal arts teach us to ask why we do things, an essential coupling with learning how we do things in the STEM disciplines. Brutal regimes throughout history were excellent at mastering the how, but notoriously deficient in debating the why.
Education must be holistic, not piecemeal. We train students for jobs, but also for life. At our convocation each year, I remind our graduates that their humanities education provides a foundation for addressing both expected and unexpected future experiences with joy and sorrow, love and loss, privacy and citizenship, understanding and frustration.
Its lessons apply not only to multiple career paths, but to the shape of their lives.
Far from being the economic slouch of the university, our College of Humanities has grown its income from external grants 1,500 percent over the past decade. Why? Because our interdisciplinary collaborations have blossomed, and funding agencies recognize that solving the big issues in the world requires multiple perspectives.
We exceeded our fundraising goals for the U's capital campaign a year ahead of schedule and the percentage of our alumni donating is among the top at the university.
They include the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley (English); Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development (history); and Michael Mischler, executive vice president of CBS (communication), among 20,000 others. Hardly a road to nowhere.
The University of Utah returns over five dollars to the state for every dollar invested. Not bad in any market. I welcome accountability in higher education, but our product must be measured differently. We are not a factory producing a requisite number of widgets. Our product is knowledge, which cannot always be measured precisely, or its effects immediately.
I contend that the study and creation of knowledge in and of itself is valuable, whether or not it has an immediate economic outcome. It's why the academy, from Plato to the present, was created and should be sustained as fundamental to a just and democratic society.
In our quest to provide the pathway to successful careers for our students, let's refrain from tossing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. A multi-dimensional world requires more than a one-dimensional education.
The enhancement of core values does not come by extricating the core.
Our next great discoveries will come not just from those with prodigious technical skills, but from those who can imagine, compare and connect. Toss in some ethical sensibilities and we have the ingredients for a positive future, a veritable road to everywhere.
Robert D. Newman is dean of the University of Utah's College of Humanities, associate vice president for Interdisciplinary Studies and a professor of English.