President's Letter for March 2013: STEM Subjects Are Not the Only Essential Ones

There has been a lot of talk in the US recently about the importance of encouraging the study of the so-called STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).  In the UK, the civil service has long been advocating such an emphasis on STEM, although it is revealing that in the US people still tend to focus on whether this or that education is a good “investment” for the individual, whereas in Britain the government agencies are more concerned with which education is best for society as a whole (on “investment” as the wrong metaphor in the first place, see Bob Connor’s recent post).

In response to this new wave of pressure, there have been a number of excellent defenses of the value of studying non-STEM subjects, and I do not want to rehearse that case here; let me just refer you to the fine column in the Washington Post by Danielle Allen, for example, and to the new AHA website I recently recommended on making the case for the value of the Humanities and Social Sciences.  But I just want to comment on the background of the lawmakers who are the most recent ones to advocate strongly for specific practical steps to foster STEM.

The Economist recently had a leader on US immigration reform, in which they applauded in particular an initiative from a bipartisan group of eight Senators which would allow foreign nationals who go to US universities to remain in the country after graduation: “They would…give an automatic green card to anyone gaining a master’s degree or a doctorate in science, technology, engineering or maths from an American university” (February 2nd, 2013, p.10).

This is a very controversial proposal in various ways, as is a similar proposal to give six-year visas to up to 300,000 foreign high-tech workers a year (see the New York TimesOp Ed piece on this subject last month by Ross Eisenbrey).  But it’s interesting that no one appears to be advocating giving an automatic green card to anyone gaining an advanced degree in the humanities or social sciences, although even at a crassly utilitarian level it might look like a good idea to increase the number of US residents who, for example, have an intimate knowledge of other languages and cultures.  I’m not necessarily arguing for such a green card policy myself, but the assumption that it is self-evidently “useful” to foster certain subjects and not others is worth pushing back against before it becomes completely automatic.

If you look at the educational background of the eight Senators, it’s even more interesting that they appear not to see value in retaining as a member of US society someone with a degree in humanities or social sciences.  Only one of the group (Lindsey Graham, R-SC) has an undergraduate major in a science subject (Psychology).  The others have undergraduate degrees in History (Michael Bennet, D-CO); International Relations (Dick Durbin, D-IL; Jeff Flake, R-AZ; Marco Rubio, R-FL); Political Science (Bob Menendez, D-NJ); and Government (Chuck Schumer, D-NY).  John McCain (R-AZ) attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and so wasn’t in the business of choosing majors, but he preferred literary and historical subjects, reporting in his 1999 memoir Faith of My Fathers: “Unfortunately, the curriculum at the Academy was weighted preponderantly toward math and the sciences” (p.134).

In their choices of major, these Senators are fairly representative of their colleagues in Congress.  In the 112th Congress, apart from the 26 Members of the House and the single Senator who had no more than a high school diploma, government and the humanities accounted for 55.7% of the undergraduate majors; 13.7% had degrees in Business and Accounting, with 8.4% in Economics.  24 members had a medical degree.  Only 11.5% of the members of the 112th Congress had an undergraduate major in Science and Technology (for these figures, see Mark J. Perry’s post).

I can’t help wondering if Messrs. Bennet, Durbin, Flake, Menendez, Rubio and Schumer actually believe that the subjects they majored in are useless and that their undergraduate education did not provide them with skills and perspectives that the country has benefitted from. 

Let me be clear: I am enthusiastically in favor of the study of STEM subjects, not least because I believe that science and mathematics are a vital part of a liberal arts education.  I’d be very happy to see more highly trained scientists and engineers in government (it may seem redundant to state this, but one can be easily misunderstood in these debates).  But the value of a general education in the liberal arts, including science, mathematics, the humanities and social sciences, is something we must keep affirming in the face of the consensus one can sense developing. 

I would like to imagine the day when a President gives a State of the Union address to Congress in which he or she quotes the wisdom of George Washington in the first ever State of the Union address, on January 8, 1790: “Nor am I less persuaded, that you will agree with me in opinion, that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature.  Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of publick happiness.”  Even if we update the spelling and take away the Gothic “k” from “publick”, it is hard to imagine a President today writing those words, with their firm understanding of the value of the whole domain of knowledge.

Denis Feeney
President

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A yellowed manuscript page with Ancient Greek script written on it, with large margins and a letter M drop cap at the beginning.

When I learned that I would be teaching my department’s graduate Greek survey in Fall 2021, I promptly burst into tears. The assignment was not what I was expecting; more painfully, it brought up all the barely suppressed memories of my own survey experience.

In one sense, that experience had been a success. It transformed me from a glacially slow reader of Greek into a slightly faster one, familiar with a range of authors and genres and capable of passing my Greek qualifying exam. It also left me with an enduring sense of inferiority, even fraudulence. I didn’t make it through a single one of our assignments (the standard 1,000 lines per week). I never felt in command of the language or my own learning. The fact that I had improved seemed more like a happy accident than an effect of the curriculum, let alone something I could be proud of. For years afterwards, even post-graduation, I would wake up wondering how many lines I had to read that day and then calculate by how far I would fail.

This might seem like an extreme reaction, but from what I can tell, it’s not uncommon. Greek and Latin Surveys, the foundation of Classics graduate curricula in the US, leave many people feeling ashamed of their language skills.

View full article. | Posted in on Tue, 08/09/2022 - 12:51pm by .

Program of the 1st IConiC Conference

Audience Response in Ancient Greek and Latin Literature 

02-03 September 2022  

https://sites.google.com/uoi.gr/iconic 

Via Ms Teams 

View full article. | Posted in Conferences, Lectures, and Meetings on Tue, 08/09/2022 - 11:50am by .

Directed by Christopher Bungard

Erin Moodie translator 

The Committee on Ancient and Modern Performance (CAMP) presents a script-in-hand reading of a new translation by Erin Moodie of Terence’s Phormio. The African born Terence often gets short shrift when it comes to ancient drama, but he is tremendously influential in the history of western theatre.  

View full article. | Posted in Performances on Sun, 08/07/2022 - 1:45pm by Helen Cullyer.

Kairos in ancient arts and techniques

Submission deadlines:

October 1, 2022 (Title & Abstract)
April 30, 2023 (Text)

Vol. 11, Issue 2, 2023 

Edited by Giada Capasso & Alessandro Stavru

The international Journal Thaumàzein devotes a special issue to the relationship between kairos and the techniques in Graeco-Roman antiquity.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Wed, 08/03/2022 - 10:24am by .

August 15 is the final abstract deadline for A Conference on Homer in Sicily, October 5-8 with a Homer-themed post-conference tour October 9-10, 2022

Keynote Speakers: Jenny Strauss Clay (Virginia) and Stamatia Dova (Hellenic College and CHS)

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Tue, 08/02/2022 - 2:47pm by .
A fresco with a red background. In the middle is a circle, in which a young man reads a papyrus scroll.

This is Part 3 of a three-part series. Find Part 1 and Part 2 here.

There is nothing ideologically neutral about grades, and there is nothing ideologically neutral about the idea that we can neatly and tidily do away with grades. We can't simply take away grades without re-examining all of our pedagogical approaches, and this work looks different for each teacher, in each context, and with each group of students.

— Jesse Stommel, “Grades are Dehumanizing

View full article. | Posted in on Mon, 08/01/2022 - 3:33pm by .

The following obituary is reposted from legacy.com.

You can read the original posting at this link.

"We collectively mourn the loss of Dr. Corinne Ondine Pache, Professor of Classical Studies and a cherished member of the Trinity University community, who ended her battle with cancer on July 20, 2022. Corinne was an accomplished scholar, revered teacher and mentor, and terrific friend to many all over the globe. She will be sorely missed.

View full article. | Posted in In Memoriam on Wed, 07/27/2022 - 2:19pm by .
A mosaic featuring a group of men in togas, variously sitting and standing outdoors. Some are reading, while others engage in conversation.

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Find Part 1 and Part 3 here.

Only by abandoning traditional grading and performance assessment practices can we achieve our ultimate educational objectives.

Alfie Kohn

Tradition in Classics is powerful. When the three of us started teaching as graduate students, we drew on our experiences as undergraduates in the many Classics courses we had taken, particularly when it came to assessing students. This is not a bad thing! We all need to start somewhere while we are growing as educators. Nevertheless, it was difficult for us to imagine, for instance, teaching Latin without traditional assessment practices (such as high-stakes tests), because that’s how we were taught.

View full article. | Posted in on Mon, 07/25/2022 - 10:03am by .

The National Humanities Center invites applications for academic-year or one-semester residential fellowships. Mid-career, senior, and emerging scholars from all areas of the humanities with a strong record of peer-reviewed work are encouraged to apply. Scholars from all parts of the globe are eligible; stipends and travel expenses are provided. Fellowship applicants must have a PhD or equivalent scholarly credentials. Fellowships are supported by the Center’s own endowment, private foundation grants, contributions from alumni and friends, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Located in the vibrant Research Triangle region of North Carolina, the Center affords access to the rich cultural and intellectual communities supported by the area’s research institutes, universities, and dynamic arts scene. Fellows enjoy private studies, in-house dining, and superb library services that deliver all research materials.

Applications and all accompanying materials are due by 11:59 p.m. EDT, October 6, 2022.
 

For more information and to apply, please visit:
https://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/become-a-fellow/.
 

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Wed, 07/20/2022 - 10:27am by .
A bronze statue of a girl sitting on the side of a bench in reading pose, though she does not hold a book. Her hand is open as if a book is missing. She is barefoot, her hair tied up, wearing a draped dress.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Find Part 2 and Part 3 here.

Picture a student getting back a graded essay or exam. They glance at the letter or number at the top of the page and throw the paper in the recycling on their way out the door without reading the feedback, even when you think it will help them succeed on the next major assignment.

Imagine being consistently impressed by a student’s in-class work. Their insights and positive attitude contribute significantly to the learning environment. However, they do very poorly on the first major assessment, a midterm exam. Both of you are surprised and dismayed, and the student is discouraged.

Consider grading a batch of assignments. Looking at your rubric, you are struggling with the difference between an A– and a B+ for a few essays. You put them down to look at later.

View full article. | Posted in on Mon, 07/18/2022 - 11:01am by .

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