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Pete Simpson Forum | Can UW strike humanities-STEM balance? — Cotherman

Note from Pete Simpson:

In last July’s Pete Simpson Forum, “The Two Worlds and the University of Wyoming,” concern over the proper balance at UW between the sciences on the one hand and the humanities and arts on the other was addressed by former arts and sciences dean Dr. Gerry Meyer and Casper attorney Nick Murdock. Though they diverged, they shared common ground in terms of the need for such balance.

That issue now takes on sharper dimensions in light of mandatory budget cuts dictated by the governor and Legislature this past session of anywhere between $10 million and $15 million. In assessing impacts on the college of arts and sciences a “worst case scenario” described cutting the departments of philosophy, sociology and statistics.

As bleak as advocates might see this, such is the nature of contemporary decision making throughout higher education. In Florida, Texas, Wisconsin and North Carolina there is serious consideration being given to eliminating state subsidies for the liberal arts in all state-funded institutions. Obviously, revenue problems affect policy and the resulting decisions most often emphasize the practical and pragmatic over the theoretical and humanistic.  

In Wyoming, the rapid reduction of mineral revenue sources attendant to the fall of oil prices has placed similar pressure on the public schools which face a little over a $15 million shortfall.

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In this month’s forum, two contributors, one with extensive administrative and academic experience at UW and one with a background in public education and the humanities, explore implications of budget constraints for balance in Wyoming’s educational institutions.       

Don Roth is recently retired Professor Emeritus and Associate Director of the School of Advanced Energy Studies and past Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Wyoming. Roth’s assessment of these stresses goes beyond the question of balance to the need to re-think offerings in the humanities and social sciences with an eye to integrative approaches with the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum.

Read the companion piece for this Pete Simpson Forum: Higher education may benefit from a little paranoia

The fate of public school offerings in the humanities and arts is addressed by Audrey Cotherman, former Wyoming Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction and past Director of the Wyoming Humanities Council. Her observations speak to the long-term effects of curricular imbalances for the lives of students.

Is there a crisis, or are we “crying wolf?” Tell us what direction you see in our educational institutions and what balance you would like to see achieved. — Pete Simpson

Will UW train workers or prepare citizens?

By Audrey M. Cotherman, Ed.D.

Public education seems to be drifting more and more to preparing students for jobs. Well, what’s wrong with that? We all have to work, don’t we? Traditionally, our education in America has been different from other countries in that we tried to blend the practical with the theoretical, but today public education seems to be tilting toward what is viewed as practical. But is it practical to focus education on the “how” instead of the “what” and the “why?”

Audrey Cotherman is a former Wyoming Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction and past Director of the Wyoming Humanities Council. (Photo courtesy of Audrey Cotherman)

Audrey Cotherman is a former Wyoming Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction and past Director of the Wyoming Humanities Council. (Photo courtesy of Audrey Cotherman)

A study of the humanities provides students with exercise in gathering the facts (what) and examining the possible explanation for events, attitudes, personal decisions, and public policy (why). These are the skills they will need, not only to work, but to make choices and grow as individuals and citizens.

This question of whether we are drifting toward job preparation is important because the fundamental question we need to answer before deciding what is studied is what we think the purpose and function of public education is. If we believe that the original intention in America was to provide free and mandatory education from ages 4 or 5 to 18 to all children in order to prepare them to be good, engaged and committed citizens (mates, parents, neighbors, patriots), this purpose guides how we do that.

If, however, we believe that the purpose of public education is to prepare children for work, i.e., to make a living and contribute to the economic wellbeing of America, then we provide training in the rote skills they need for specific occupations and we inevitably shortchange the humanities. The fact is that in America we have always balanced the needs to offer both the practical and the theoretical, but the emphasis has been on providing all students the studies that were only reserved for the elite in other countries. History, civics, literature, languages, ethics, were now not just the province of the few, but available to the many because we were a democratic society and the skills needed for self-government required thinking, problem solving, creativity, innovation and self-direction.

With these skills, we will not only become productive citizens, but productive workers. So, the issue of whether we are using our public schools to prepare citizens or workers is one that should require a broad and spirited public discussion.

Simply focusing on preparing students with specific skills for a specific profession is not enough. Today, society is so mobile that preparing, for example, students for oil-field or mining work may not give them the skills needed somewhere else in this country or the world. Besides, specific skills may be obsolete within five years or less as technology changes the nature of work and the way things operate.

Humanities studies are important because they guide students in developing the skills that are needed in every field of endeavor whether it is work, family, or community. They are transferable skills and for the most part they are not “taught” so much as acquired through individual study, research of facts, synthesis of ideas, and sorting of values by discussing and respecting varying views and experiences.

Early American schools didn’t train workers; they prepared citizens, and it is frightening to see what happens when citizens have little or no knowledge of American and western history, American and other literature, and the formation and preservation of democratic societies from Greece to the United States. Clearly, a self-governing society doesn’t take care of itself; it must be tended by the people if it is to remain of and for the people.

RELATED | Wyoming influenced the way America invests in humanities

What then are the values that the student is exposed to in being introduced to a broad, liberal education? More than 30 years ago, the American Federation of Teachers published a pamphlet called “Education for Democracy” and in it, dignity, equal rights, social and economic justice, tolerance for diversity, personal and civic responsibility, self-restraint and self-respect were some of the values implicit in a study of the liberal arts.

In some communities, only a half day will be spent on these studies while the other half is spent on learning skills for specific jobs. Given contemporary budget cuts mandated by the Legislature this last session, time for these subjects may be reduced even further.  As experience shows, the arts and the humanities are generally the first to go. One can wonder what time will be left for the transmission of American values, habits and experience in context and contrast with the rest of the world. Will students have the necessary time to find their own answers and to master what it means to be a free individual in a country that she will inherit and must attend to?

Job training teaches specific procedures that must be followed for safety and efficiency. The liberal arts should have nothing to do with rote learning. These studies invite, even insist upon discussion, engagement, researching and writing. The humanities are studies that are demanding, but engaging. They encourage thinking and seeing connections. When the solid, hard, demanding, but exciting subjects are given short shrift, students are deprived of the kind of experience where inquiry leads to more inquiry and ideas are synthesized into a philosophy of life.

There is something quite undemocratic about viewing public education as a machine that feeds workers into the system. The original breakthrough in our new democracy was when we provided the opportunity for all children to study what once was only the province of the elite. If the public schools do not help future citizens understand the nature of freedom and its link to responsibility, we have a society in which the few dominate the many. The Greeks understood this and when they experimented with a government in which everyone had a say, they also made the studies of Aristotle and Socrates more broadly available. Democracy was to be built on truth and virtue, phrases we rarely hear as objectives except in literature, philosophy, social studies and government.

So, what are the “virtues” that we wish public school children to learn? We want them to understand and practice equality; social and economic justice, tolerance of diversity, personal and civic responsibility. We want them to grow independent judgment, to feed curiosity, to be aware of the relationship between events and ideas. We want them to have respect for others — to respect themselves and to practice honesty, integrity, and compassion. We want them to stay engaged rather than passive, and to be self-sustaining rather than dependent. We want students to become adults who read, think, speculate, write, inquire and discuss.

In Fareed Zakaria’s book, “In Defense of Liberal Education,” he describes the kind of education he had in India, where only the superior students were encouraged to go forward, and the emphasis was on preparing for a job/career. He emphasizes the importance of a liberal education because, among other reasons, the nature of work changes and the requirements for that work change as well. He can’t imagine why America, that has a unique system, would think of turning it into a training system like Russia, Germany or many other countries. He says foreigners flock to American educational institutions for the diverse courses they offer, and for the wide-ranging opportunities for student to learn by doing.

Public education has long since given up the tendency to lecture students. Instead, students are encouraged to make each lesson in each subject meaningful to his or her self. The idea is to raise students’ capacity to be innovative and creative, to identify issues and what caused them, and then come up with solutions. That means that the preparation of teachers is changing from being the source of knowledge to being the facilitator of learning. They use the humanities as an invitation to think about the direction of civilization as well as the meaning of their individual lives.

Legislators often talk about the cost of education and whether we’re “getting our money’s worth.” The question is “do we get our money’s worth by creating workers or by creating citizens, by encouraging studies with absolute answers, or studies that encourage innovative, creative, independent thinking?” If we wish to change both public education and the results, we must once again view our system as one that demonstrates through instructional methods and intense subject matter how to inquire, synthesize ideas, encourage responsibility and integrity, and solve problems.

These are the skills and the habits of the mind the humanities studies offer, and with them, graduates will not only be employable, but thoughtful, reliable citizens who add value to our self- government as well as to the workforce.

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2 Responses to Pete Simpson Forum | Can UW strike humanities-STEM balance? — Cotherman

  1. Steen Goddik June 1, 2016 at 6:52 pm #

    What does come to mind is a movie quote, chess as that is. In “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” the protagonist is arguing against cuts in the arts, for the sake of the basics, such as writing. The remark goes something like this.

    ‘If we keep cutting the arts for the sake of basics like writing, then we won’t have anything to write about.’

    Evansville, Wyoming

  2. Charles Seniawski May 31, 2016 at 8:33 am #

    I think it would be informative to look at the approach taken by a fairly well-known school of higher learning that also has a focus on STEM, my alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the course of one’s undergraduate education, one is required to take eight courses in what MIT currently calls HASS, short for humanities, arts and social sciences. In one form or another, the name has changed over the years, this has been a requirement for decades.
    Quoting Dennis M. Freeman, Dean for Undergraduate Education, “Ultimately, an MIT education is about creating a learning environment and learning opportunities that prepare students as innovators, leaders, and lifelong learners.”
    Is the University of Wyoming goal not the same? Or is it UW’s goal to merely put technicians out in the field? I think the answer to the latter question should guide the discussion.

    Cheyenne, Wyoming

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