Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
I am grateful to all the respondents for their engaged, thoughtful, and challenging comments. I will begin by addressing two misunderstandings and then turn to the fundamental question uniting the responses.
Deborah Meier is concerned that my defense of the humanities is based on test scores, which ultimately reflect socioeconomic status. I am using test scores differently, however. The data I present show a correlation within the same socioeconomic category—those with college degrees, or those with high verbal and high math scores—between strength in the humanistic side of development and political participation. In other words, the correlation that I identify between the liberal arts and political participation is a within-class difference and thus does not depend on socioeconomic status. This point is critical.
Holistic education can do more than change who receives goods within the status quo pattern of distribution. It can upend the pattern.
Moreover, I am not using these data in themselves to defend the humanities. Rather, I am using them to call attention to a differential impact on human development of discrete parts of the curriculum. For students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, education in the humanities and social sciences correlates with an increased likelihood of political participation. The differential impact on civic development of STEM and humanistic education has received very little attention. Yet the difference is important. We should want to understand just how the humanistic element of education supports the development of participatory readiness. If we can understand that better, we will then also be in a position to address the question of the interaction between different types of curricula and access to opportunity across the socioeconomic spectrum. If the humanities do indeed foster civic participation, but we seek instead to advance equality for the disadvantaged primarily by focusing on STEM education, we may be undermining political equality for the poor. This, in turn, might limit the degree to which we can reorganize our political economy toward egalitarian ends. In short, our technocratic efforts at egalitarianism might have the unintended and ironic consequence of producing more entrenched inequality, both politically and socioeconomically.
• • •
I would like to clarify how I see the relationships between STEM and humanistic curricula and between the vocational and civic purposes of education. With regard to each, I make a “both/and” argument. Full human development demands both STEM and humanistic curricula and capacities. A flourishing human life demands both vocational and civic purposes and successes. My forthcoming book, Education and Equality, which my essay draws on, makes this point strenuously.
This brings me to the respondents’ common concern. My aim is to address a current crisis in education. In my view, the challenge we now face arises not from the intrinsic value of STEM or the humanities. Rather, it is caused by widely shared assumptions about the purpose of education, which in turn shape our education and economic policies. Or turn the issue around and ask how other policy domains—for instance, economic policy—drive education policy. Are other policy imperatives reducing the opportunity to pursue holistic, both/and visions of education? If so, is that a danger to the cause of equality, or do I overstate the value of the humanistic side of education for an egalitarian society? This is the fundamental question uniting all of the responses to my essay. We might all agree, in principle, that STEM and humanities curricula—and vocational and civic preparation—are beneficial. But do current education policies push in a holistic direction? I believe they do not. I offer a diagnosis for the policy failures. The problem comes from a widely shared misconception of the purposes of education—particularly, from underappreciating its civic purposes and overappreciating its vocational purposes.
At the K–12 level, as well as in higher education, we have seen diminishing provision of extracurricular programs such as debate and Model UN, arts and music classes, and civics. These changes are well documented. It is true that the Common Core integrates high analytical standards into both its STEM and English language arts components, but the political viability of the Common Core is seriously in question. Moreover, the failure of the National Governors Association to secure the inclusion of social studies standards within the Common Core indicates how hard it is, in the context of education policy, to maintain a genuinely holistic program.
Achieving a holistic education paradigm is difficult for several reasons, and the aborted social studies component of the Common Core provides a case in point. The standards were victims of political polarization, but that is not all. I believe our shortsighted approach to income inequality is another culprit. The technocratic method of reducing income inequality by educating for skills presumes a stable economic structure that distributes rewards unequally, such that all we can do is try to manage inequality. This view has inspired us to develop education policy that reinforces the political-economic status quo. The STEM-based vocational paradigm—split off from a commitment to holistic education—seeks to produce workers for the economy as we currently know it. We might rather seek to turn out citizens who are able to thrive economically under current conditions, but who can also help to re-envision the rules that—as Rodrik and others have argued—so powerfully shape economic opportunities and outcomes.
The respondents say that I do not have much evidence to support my view that political equality will bring egalitarian economic policy. It is true that the evidence is limited, although I point to work by Acemoğlu and Robinson that offers support. That said, the respondents do not have much evidence against my view either. It is a hypothesis that has received insufficient attention and therefore deserves research scrutiny as well as practical experiment.
The final point I would like to make relates to Michel DeGraff’s account of the importance of linguistic empowerment in Haiti. His work beautifully reveals that some educational opportunities induce phase shifts in civic and vocational capacity, rather than merely permitting people to move up the rungs on an existing ladder. My hypothesis is that these sorts of phase shifts have the potential to change the patterns by which positional goods are distributed. They can, in other words, destabilize status quo class structures. This is an alternative story for how education can combat inequality, not merely by changing who receives goods within a stable distributional pattern but by upending that pattern entirely. My proposal is that a holistic education with a strong humanistic focus is more likely to promote this sort of radical revision than one focused on STEM and vocational training.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.