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Posted at 11:49 AM ET, 10/26/2010

In STEM era, humanities get new attention

By Valerie Strauss

You could be forgiven for thinking that the only subjects being promoted in higher education are math, science, technology and engineering.

Just today, for example, the New York Times lamented in an editorial that the country is falling behind its rivals in these areas, and called on Congress to expand funding for programs that support high-caliber math and science students in college if they promise to teach in needy school districts after graduation.

President Obama has also been on a STEM-booster campaign: The White House last week held its first Science Fair and the president announced several new initiatives in STEM education aimed at improving U.S. competitiveness.

In this STEM ocean, the humanities have seemed at risk of drowning. Once the study of the humanities was virtually synonymous with the core of higher education, but by 2007, fewer than 10 percent of undergraduates majored in humanities fields.

Now, though, study and research in the humanities is making a comeback of sorts, with a number of schools opening or planning to open new centers for humanities research.

Today, for example, Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is opening its $22.5 million Mandel Center for the Humanities, the University of Connecticut recently broke ground for its new humanities center, and the University of Pittsburgh unveiled its new center this year.

Harvard University this month announced that it was using a $10 million donation -- the largest gift for the study of humanities in the school’s history -- to create collaborations among the humanities, social sciences and sciences.

The gift comes during a year of increased focus on the humanities at Harvard, where President Drew Faust has indicated that she will charge a faculty working group with exploring the role of humanistic study in the curriculum, in collaborative and interdisciplinary work across the university, and in public discourse at the national and international levels, according to the Harvard Gazette.

The new humanities center at Brandeis, intended to reverse the erosion of the study of the humanities, will also focus on interdisciplinary research.

“Brandeis and the Mandel Foundation believe that without the study of the humanities, our own humanity is diminished,” Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz wrote in an e-mail.

“We are not saying it is choice between science or the humanities," he said. "In fact, two years ago, Brandeis opened the Shapiro Science Center, which is a state-of-the art complex. But we are passionate in our belief that the study of the humanities must be integrated into the curriculum to give students a broader understanding and deeper knowledge.”

It’s not just in the United States where humanities have been challenged.

The government of Iran announced recently that it would limit the number of students studying the humanities.

In an August speech, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, complained about the popularity of the “human sciences,” which in Iran includes the humanities and the social sciences.

According to a report from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he said that “instruction in these human sciences in the universities will lead to reservations and doubts in religious principles and beliefs.”

Meanwhile, in South Korea, where humanities and liberal arts courses have been fading, one university, Kyung Hee, is going against the trend.

According to the Korea Times, the university established the “Humanitas College” last month.

Kyung Hee University President Choue In-won said in an interview with the newspaper:

“Universities have put too much focus on teaching students particular skills or technology needed for employment, while social sciences and humanities have taken a back seat. This trend should change. Pragmatic and vocational specialties and knowledge are necessary but they are simply not enough. They should be based on humanities that teach about being human.”


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 26, 2010; 11:49 AM ET
Categories:  Curriculum, Higher Education  | Tags:  STEM, brandeis university, engineering degrees, humanities, iran, mandel center, math education, new york times editorial, president obama, science fair, social sciences, south korea, stem education, the humanities, university of connecticut, university of pittsburgh, white house  
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This is heartening news - a balance, and hope for the future! I'd like to add a quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (French philosopher, scientist, priest among other things)that also gives me hope because it blends so many aspirations:

"Someday, after we have mastered the winds and the tides and the gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love; and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire."

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 26, 2010 9:44 PM | Report abuse

And in Virginia, fourth-graders are studying the humanities (history) from an inaccurate history text written by a non-historian and approved by three elementary teachers who may or may not have ever studied any history. So much for teaching the humanities.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | October 27, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

I looked up the data at, and found that STEM majors are 31% at public universities, and humanties majors are 28%, as of 2008-9. This is well above the 10% cited by the author, so things may not be as bleak as is implied. On the other hand, even STEM education relies heavily on the humanities for many of the fundamental skills that STEM practitioners need. I say this speaking as a science geek; even for us, the humanities are Important.

I agree with sideswiththekids; what passes for history in elementary school is as abysmal as what passes for science. Both are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the real thing. I don't blame the teachers, however. They have to teach everything, and just don't have time to study every field in great depth before being sent into the classroom. The problem lies with teacher-educators, whose training is in how to teach, not what to teach. If you don't know what to teach, it doesn't much matter how well you teach something else.

Posted by: Jose81 | October 28, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

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