Commentary, Opinion

Beyond arts versus STEM: Why the interdisciplinary approach could revolutionize higher education

The idea that arts degrees are useless has become a cultural joke. Every holiday, my friends and I repeat the same conversation, poking fun at the fact that our relatives are definitely going to ask us about our studies, followed by the inevitable question: “What happens after graduation?” Yet, this conversation only scratches the surface of the problem that is the Bachelor of Arts. The division between arts and sciences in post-secondary education hinders student potential. The solution? A multidisciplinary approach to degree planning.

Public universities must preserve and promote their arts programs alongside their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs, because an arts degree teaches students to think creatively, challenge existing scholarship, and contribute to cultural discourses. Pushing students into a more traditionally profitable field guts their potential to learn these critical thinking skills. However, the classical liberal arts degree is itself problematic, because it still bears the shadow of its original design as an object of the leisure class. It is therefore difficult for money-minded students to pursue, for example, a classics or literature degree. If students, educators, and employers alike struggle with the divide between the disciplines, it may be time for higher education to overhaul its polar structure by emphasizing interdisciplinary learning and the idea that arts degrees can be profitable.

The divide between arts and STEM is a pastiche of historical holdovers and a short-sighted desire for capital gain. Liberal arts education has been reserved for the cultural elite since the classical period. The contemporary university grew out of this model. Knowledge not based in skill or craft (for example, knowledge of a dead language) was reserved for those who could afford to spend their time learning without working. At modern, public universities like McGill—which, in theory, are more accessible—an arts degree is still a precarious option for those without generational wealth, one seen as a detriment to financial security. In contrast, STEM degrees tend to top lists of most lucrative majors.

It is time to de-emphasize the arts versus STEM polarity in the public mind, so that STEM majors do not eclipse the arts entirely.

The air of financial insecurity associated with an arts degree can discourage students from choosing and parents from supporting such a path. The idea that there are “no jobs in the arts” is so pervasive that it has led some institutions to defund arts programs. Most notably, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point recently unveiled plans to cut some arts majors in favour of more employable programs in an attempt to attract more students and boost revenue. Governmental policies, such as the UK’s and China’s, are even more extreme, and provide more support for the study of STEM subjects than for the arts.

Messaging from families, institutions, and governments reinforces the idea that the arts are the provenance of the leisure class, and ignores a more complicated reality. Arts degrees tend to pay off long-term, especially when augmented by further education, because they teach students to communicate and problem-solve effectively. Yet, even in light of this information, institutions still feel pressure to fast track their students into STEM fields. It is time to de-emphasize the arts versus STEM polarity in the public mind, so that STEM majors do not eclipse the arts entirely.

An interdisciplinary approach to higher education has the power to create new ways of engaging with fields that some might see as useless or outdated. For example, the meeting of computer science and arts has created new ways to engage with texts that have been picked over by scholars for centuries. Tufts University’s Perseus Digital Library, for example, provides a literary database and analysis tools for ancient languages. JSTOR Labs marries technology with its extensive online database to create new ways to interact with primary and secondary sources. If universities like McGill encouraged students to take an interdisciplinary approach to their studies, they might find themselves breaking vital new ground in fields that many see as arcane. McGill, notably, already offers a joint arts and science degree, but due to the cultural divide between the two, high school applicants may not be equipped with the knowledge to choose such a path. Even such requirements as arts electives for science students do not help the situation, as they reinforce the idea that the arts are auxiliary.

The financial uncertainty facing those who choose an arts degree is a cultural myth that reinforces the false notion that the arts are dying. An interdisciplinary model for universities would encourage innovation and give students the opportunity to fuse marketable skills with the equally important, but devalued, critical thinking skills provided by the arts.  

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