Karen Hitchcock: The Need To Re-imagine Our Nation’s System Of Higher Education

Jun 27, 2013

The recent release of a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences entitled, “The Heart of the Matter,” has inspired much discussion in the halls of universities and the halls of Congress regarding the importance of the humanities versus the sciences in the education of our nation’s young people. As stated by Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Times, this report, commissioned by a bipartisan group of legislators is “…  intended as a rallying cry against the entrenched idea that the humanities and social sciences are luxuries that employment-minded students can ill afford.” 

The report, like others before it, makes the case that many employers do, indeed, value the kinds of skills felt to flow from the study of such subjects as literature, languages, history, cultures, philosophy, the arts, and so on ….. skills, known as “soft skills,” like creative thinking, analytical thinking, clarity of communication – both written and oral – curiosity and sensitivity to cultural and historical context.  And, yet, the study of these disciplines, collectively known as the humanities, coupled with social sciences like economics, psychology and political science, has been under fire of late as not being sufficiently practical, of not leading directly to gainful employment, of not preparing our graduates to fill the kinds of positions required by our increasingly technology-driven society. Indeed, the report comments with alarm on the decreasing enrollments in the humanities and many of the social sciences, a trend reported across our nation’s universities and colleges, including such prestigious institutions as Harvard and Yale.

 However, such a  trend is certainly not surprising given the strong belief by many in government and academia that, if we are to have a robust economy, what our country really needs is to increase in a substantial way the number of students interested in and skilled in the sciences and technology.  That singular focus has led, in large part, to the diminution in support seen for the humanistic disciplines. Proficiency in such fields as science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM disciplines – is felt to be much more important if the US is to have a globally-competitive workforce.

Rex Smith, Editor of the Albany Times Union, recently discussed the need for “rebalancing” our approach to these different disciplines in our schools. His editorial eloquently addresses the benefits which flow from the study of the humanities, and he voices his concern that we are now stressing the STEM disciplines to such a degree that we risk losing the critically-important contributions that the humanities make to the education of our young people.  He urges educators to “rebalance” so they do not “…create a nation of people who know how to do things but not why … ”.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Smith. However, history tells us that public policy has not supported the kind of disciplinary balance that is so important to a quality education. Federal funding has favored the disciplines seen as being most directly related to workforce needs. Indeed, a Florida task force actually recommended that public universities in the state charge higher tuitions for students majoring in humanistic fields felt not to lead to employment in areas important to the state’s economy.

The solution, in my opinion, will require that we step back and examine the capabilities of our nation’s entire system of higher education – universities, colleges, as well as our two-year community colleges – and design educational programs which utilize the strengths of each in creative new ways.  For instance,  psychology majors at a four-year college can fulfill all the requirements of a liberal arts degree, even as they take related career-oriented courses at a community college in behavioral counseling.  Coupling liberal arts majors with simultaneous enrollment in the more applied programs of a community college would enable students to experience the breadth of a robust liberal arts degree, even as they prepare themselves for specific positions in the workforce.  Employers would have access to students who possess the “soft skills” that flow from a robust liberal arts degree as well as the practical knowledge required to be a productive employee. This kind of flexibility and creativity regarding the delivery of our various educational programs would, I feel, enable us to achieve the kind of disciplinary balance needed to ensure the strength and productivity of our nation’s workforce.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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