Push for STEM funding must not suffocate the humanities

UConn’s current emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, which parallels country-wide policies, has brought education reform into dangerous territory with a concurrent de-emphasis on the humanities.

There have been new initiatives from K-12, companies, universities as well as government-funded foundations to help re-vitalize and incentivize students to pursue STEM. For example, President Obama has brought together universities and industry through the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative in order to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain institutes, into which the National Institute of Health invested $85 million.

While costs and investment skyrocket for STEM, universities must seek inexpensive options to continue promoting the humanities in parallel to STEM.

The well-intentioned efforts to encourage students to achieve a “more practical” degree in the hard sciences in order to establish viable career paths means practicality has become too intertwined with a general dismissal of the humanities. This dismissal has followed the humanities in the area of academic funding.

While the NIH invested $85 million in the new STEM-driven BRAIN initiative, the humanities have rarely received this level of funding in the current century. According to the “Federal STEM 5-Year Strategic Plan,” the federal government current extends $3 billion annually for STEM education. While the National Endowment for the Humanities does offer grants for humanities education and research, the push has clearly been for STEM.

Part of the reasoning for the discrepancy in funding is pragmatic and logical. STEM programs require labs, chemicals, equipment and running costs that greatly outweigh any quality humanities education in regards to pure economic cost. In other words, a university requires far more capital investment to provide a competitive STEM program, as opposed to a top-rate humanities department.

UConn’s "Born of Struggle" philosophy conference, which focuses on “strategies or conceptualizations by groups of people trying to cope with various forms of oppression” is an example of an inexpensive, yet highly effective form of humanities education. 

While the federal government continues their push for STEM, in order to better prepare the U.S. workforce for the new job market, there must be a concerted effort to maintain, if not improve, humanities offerings. UConn and other universities must find creative ways to stretch limited humanities funding.

The "Born of Struggle" conference will be followed by an April 2015 philosophy conference on “truth pluralism and logical pluralism” with a focus on the notion of truth. Both programs cost a fraction of a new STEM facility, but will raise lingering questions and inspire students to pursue courses in history, English, philosophy and other humanities majors, and find a balance between STEM and the humanities.

Conferences, colloquia, panels and debates are all inexpensive means of delving into the humanities and inspiring students who otherwise might steer clear of such topics.