- PORTLAND – In October 1957, the Soviet Union, much to the shock of the United States, launched Sputnik I, the first artificial Earth-orbiting satellite. While Sputnik itself didn’t do much, the U.S. response to its launch was profound.
President Eisenhower declared there was a “Sputnik crisis” because of a perceived technological gap between the two countries. The general U.S. reaction was “hysteria,” followed by “collective mental turmoil and soul-searching,” according to one Space Age historian. Imagine, then, the public reaction when less than a month later, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik II, this time carrying a dog.
The White House immediately announced its own planned satellite launch; Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act creating NASA in 1958; and perhaps even more importantly, it approved and funded the National Defense Education Act, providing billions of dollars to U.S. universities and colleges for math and technology studies to produce skilled workers.
There are several reasons to remember this bit of American history, not the least of which is that we now appear to be in our own “Sputnik crisis” regarding the same educational issue: science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Our national preoccupation with STEM education is fueled by a similar perception that the U.S. is losing its technological leadership in the 21st-century international marketplace.
The White House again has made STEM education a priority with a national strategy and more federal funding; even Maine has its own state STEM strategy plan, as do many local schools, to highlight science and technological training.
Add to this the perennial question of all parents of college students faced with a large tuition bill — “Will that help you get a job?” — and it seems as if the humanities these days is getting told to go sit in the corner and be quiet.
Without a doubt, we do need a re-emphasis on STEM education, as science and technology are advancing faster than our imaginations can conceive, and it is important that our society be as scientifically literate as possible so we can understand such phenomena as climate change and make intelligent decisions in the voting booth.
It looks like we have a national “STEM crisis,” but in reality what we have is a “humanities crisis.” With so much emphasis on STEM, we need the reminder that there is more to our world than computers and algorithms.
While the marketplace requires technologically trained people, it also needs those whose vision extends beyond the keyboard. American businesses, in fact, clamor more for employees who can write and communicate clearly and are capable of critical thinking than for those who only can turn on a monitor. It is time for the pendulum to swing the other way, or at least reach equilibrium.
That is the focus of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report, “The Heart of the Matter,” published last month by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. The report’s findings are serious and outline our need for a real balance between the humanities and STEM.
Humanities teachers, particularly in K-12 history, are even less well trained than teachers of STEM subjects, it states. And funding to support international education has been cut by 41 percent in four years.
“Each of these pieces of evidence suggests a problem; together, they suggest a pattern that will have grave, long-term consequences for the nation,” the commission concludes.
The report advances three national goals: “1) to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a 21st-century democracy; 2) to foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong; and 3) to equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.”
“These goals cannot be achieved by science alone,” the report states. It also advocates for full literacy, expanded education in history, civics and social studies, a Humanities Master Teacher Corps and the promotion of language learning and international relations, among other programs. These recommendations are well worth implementing.
Our country needs STEM education, but not at the sacrifice of other areas of study. STEM advances are transforming the world, but to what end?
The humanities offer tools that help us examine and make sense of the human experience and ask fundamental questions of value, purpose and meaning in a rigorous and systematic way. We would not even recall the Sputnik Crisis if it weren’t for the work of historians and political scientists who help us remember such events and put them into perspective.
The humanities, social sciences, and performing and visual arts clearly matter. They enrich us, but are no mere luxury.
Lynn Kuzma, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Southern Maine and an associate professor in the Department of History and Political Science.