An Unnecessary Dichotomy

UV Letter - Volume 1, #11

From the Q&A session with First Lady Michelle Obama at a recent College Immersion Day for local high school students at Georgetown University

Q   Which college majors do you believe that are up and coming that high school graduates should focus on?

MRS. OBAMA: That’s the beauty of a liberal arts education, and I value liberal arts education because you’re really getting a broad skill set. And I think one of the things that’s important to be able to do in life is learn how to read and write — write really well and articulate your views. So if you’re planning on going to graduate school, if you’re going to law school, for example, almost any liberal arts major that’s pushing you into writing where you have to write a thesis maybe, a large research paper at the end of the year, that kind of stuff is really good preparation for law school.

But in terms of specific careers, I think that the health care professions are growing rapidly. I think that jobs that deal with caring for the aging, good stuff. Lots of nursing and sort of those tech fields are good.

It has become an article of faith in higher education that the liberal arts or humanities are the optimal (and perhaps only) path to “getting a broad skill set,” “developing critical thinking,” “learning to learn,” or “learning to write”. The First Lady is absolutely correct that such skills are necessary for career success. Unfortunately, although she knows where the jobs are (e.g., in STEM fields), she fails to identify the elephant in the room: liberal arts majors are not learning these skills.

Like many graduates of elite universities, the First Lady’s belief in the liberal arts is heartfelt. In her day, employers were keen to snap up just about any Princeton graduate, regardless of field of study. But is this good advice today to Princeton or Georgetown students? More critical, is it good advice to the 18 million students who do not have the privilege of attending America’s elite universities?

It’s indisputable that the primary objective of a college education should be to “learn to learn” since the average American should expect to switch jobs every 4 years. The problem is that the way we currently teach the liberal arts isn’t necessary teaching students to “learn to learn.” In a recent study, only 35% of students report having experienced transformative learning during college. And the recent Arum and Roksa study of 2,300 college graduates from two dozen universities found 1/3 showed no improvement in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, or written communication. In part, this is because students are working less (on average 13 fewer hours per week than the prior generation) and producing fewer papers of 20+ pages. Ironically, it is in STEM and related fields where rigor is increasing – not to mention where the jobs are after graduation.

Students should not have to choose between “learning to learn” and “learning a skill.” This is an unnecessary dichotomy brought about by the way we teach so-called “practical” subjects like STEM, health, business and education. If these programs of study were designed and delivered more creatively, in a way that allowed students to engage with deep and complex areas of human understanding, students wouldn’t have to make this choice.

It’s unfortunate that it’s taken an economic crisis to reveal this dichotomy to be false. Because these more practical areas of study lend themselves just as well to transformative learning as do the humanities. Developing the desired creative and critical thinking skills is believed to require “perspective transformation” wherein students change their frames of reference by critically reflecting on their assumptions. Faculty must assist students in becoming aware and critical of assumptions and provide ample opportunities for oral and written discourse; students must become expert in recognizing frames of reference and engage in that discourse.

Contrast a typical English class at an average American university with the biology class in the building up the street. In the English class, the subject matter is so accessible that most students can simply reflect on the material from their own frame of reference. In the biology class, students are already asked to reflect on the material through a different frame of reference: a scientific theory which may be foreign to many of them.

Not surprisingly, the worst performers in the Arum and Roksa study were those in the non-STEM practical majors, like business, communications, and education. So it is our expectation that reconceptualizing the instruction of all practical fields of study will have two distinct salutary effects. With regard to these non-STEM practical majors, courses will be more than simply transmitting knowledge. (They have become such at many universities, which explains the high percentage of lower performing students enrolling in these programs.) These redesigned courses will foster creative and critical thinking.

At a time when STEM graduates are increasingly important for national competitiveness, it is a national imperative that policy makers encourage technical learning – just as John F Kennedy did in the age of Sputnik. It’s high time for a renewed national commitment to STEM: In countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and China, the percentage of 24 year olds with STEM degrees has grown over 500% since 1975, but only 43% in the US. Remarkably, China has just announced it is phasing out college majors with low employment rates – effectively focusing higher education resources in STEM disciplines. President Obama has rightly set the goal of educating 10,000 more engineers each year; hopefully First Lady Obama will embrace the same goal.


“I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics. Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

- Steve Jobs

In his wonderful new biography of the late Apple founder, Walter Isaacson goes on to say: “The creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences combine in one strong personality… will be key to creating innovative economies in the twenty-first century.”

We agree wholeheartedly. But the way to create more [Steve] Jobs is not to educate more humanists and hope that they somehow find their way to innovative, successful careers, but rather to educate more scientists through programs of study that are fundamentally more transformative and focused on creative and critical thinking than those offered today.

University Ventures Fund invests in universities and service companies in areas where rising demand and shrinking supply create rapidly growing market and student service opportunities.