As one whose science teaching and research career spanned 40 years in a technical institute, public university, liberal-arts college, engineering school and government laboratories, I stand strongly opposed to Gov. Matt Bevin and others who wish to reduce funding of higher education to favor science and technology programs at the severe expense of the “softer” academic fields.
The spending priorities in our universities do warrant examination. They can save by resisting the temptation to lure students with luxury food courts and living facilities and mind-boggling physical-fitness palaces. Budgets for administration and public relations could be vastly reduced. (As for the monies in varsity athletics, I defer to those who an unravel all that goes on there.)
The charge that universities are failing in STEM education is largely hokum. If corporations can’t find enough technically competent employees (tell that to those who still can’t find a job) it is not because our students are dumb or that schools are failing. It is because our culture doesn’t value serious education and too many young people haven’t the stomach for challenge required when they see, or at least imagine, easier paths to the good life.
(One cartoon shows an economics professor writing the word “production” on the blackboard; two students in the back whisper, “I don’t want to produce anything, I just want to make money!”)
And, if our corporations can’t find trained workers, why don’t they do the training themselves? They are so eager to privatize everything, why do they stick the public with all the expense and challenge of education?
The challenge our nation faces is not a lack of technological innovation. The challenge is our unwillingness and inability to anticipate, evaluate and manage our technologies. A former head of the Schools of Technology at Purdue University said every new technology brings a mix of benefit and threat. If you think that our Internet culture with its social media explosion hasn’t brought problems of security, coarsening behavior, uncertainty of what is true, and even what it is to be human, then you are truly living in cyberspace .
We make a movie about Steve Jobs and forget Mary Shelley and Robert Oppenheimer; Cassandra’s cries fall on deaf ears and political candidates don’t know or care a fig about what it means. We stand intellectually, legally and morally naked at the threshold of artificial intelligence. In short, we don’t so much need ever more technology and button pushers; we need wise leaders and thoughtful citizens to guide us through all this.
Students’ difficulty with physics and mathematics was often due to poor ability to read critically, inadequate practice in reasoning, and limited imagination and willingness to ask, “what if ... ?” Only through liberal-arts education can we get the leaders we need and the citizens we need to be: people who can interact effectively across disciplines, international boundaries and cultures, and political ideologies; people whose lives are enriched with meaningful, even spiritual understanding.
In a survey of former pre-engineering students I got the following response, “You don’t have to know Shakespeare to build a bridge, but you’ll build a better bridge if you do.”
Ernest Henninger, a retired educator, lives in Harrodsburg.