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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The SCS Board is delighted to announce a new prize, which will be awarded for the first time in 2020. The Gruen Prize honors Erich S. Gruen, Gladys Rehard Wood Professor of History and Classics Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.  It will be an essay prize for the best graduate student research on multiculturalism in the ancient Mediterranean, and submissions about any aspect of race, ethnicity, or cultural exchange will be considered. 
View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Tue, 12/31/2019 - 11:04am by Helen Cullyer.

The SCS is pleased to announce the appointment of Patrice Rankine and Sasha-Mae Eccleston as guest editors of a future issue of TAPA with the theme of race, racism, and Classics. A detailed call for papers will be issued in early 2020, and a timetable for submissions will be provided. This themed issue is likely to appear as TAPA 153:1 in spring 2023.

View full article. | Posted in Websites and Resources on Sun, 12/29/2019 - 7:32pm by Helen Cullyer.

SCS is pleased to be able to offer professional learning units (PLUs) to K-12 teachers in the District of Columbia who attend the AIA-SCS Annual Meeting from January 2-5 at the Marriott Marquis, Washington DC. Forms for PLUs will be available at the SCS booth in the exhibit hall.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Sun, 12/29/2019 - 7:12pm by Helen Cullyer.

It might seem that Plato and Xenophon have little in common with heavy metal bands; however, they do share an admiration for those warlords of Laconia: the Spartans. In a word, each expressed a degree of laconophilia. What drew ancient philosophers and heavy metal bands alike to Sparta may be a feeling of disenchantment with their respective mainstreams. Socrates’ pupils were no doubt disillusioned with Athenian democracy following his execution in 399 BCE, and the Spartan alternative arguably inspired in Plato’s Republic and Xenophon’s Constitution of the Spartans was a type of escapist fantasy.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 12/27/2019 - 5:55am by Jeremy J. Swist.

The SCS Board is delighted to announce a new prize, which will be awarded for the first time in 2020. The Gruen Prize honors Erich S. Gruen, Gladys Rehard Wood Professor of History and Classics Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.  It will be an essay prize for the best graduate student research on multiculturalism in the ancient Mediterranean, and submissions about any aspect of race, ethnicity, or cultural exchange will be considered. 

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Mon, 12/23/2019 - 9:53am by Helen Cullyer.

The 2020 Annual Meeting is less than two weeks away.  Registration numbers continue to be strong, but we are still lagging behind with the reservations at the Renaissance hotel.  We understand that some attendees will opt to stay with local friends or find a less-expensive accommodation, but we rely on hotel reservations to secure the meeting space each year.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Sat, 12/21/2019 - 7:03am by Helen Cullyer.

In November of 1897, a review of an English poetry collection titled The Flower of  the Mind was published in literary journal The Academy. In his review of Alice Meynell’s anthology of the great English poems, publisher Grant Richards ruminated on the difficulties, worth, and effects of anthologies as a genre:

Anthologies, these latter years, come thick as Vallombrosa…For the making of an anthology is not merely the prettiest of literary amusements, it is also a delicate and fine mode of criticism. To select is to judge; tacitly, but no less deliberately. Admission or exclusion becomes the last word of a patient investigation, in the course of which, tests for genius are devised, and many an established reputation fails to sustain the ordeal. A history of anthologies would be a curious chronicle of the slow but inevitable determination of greatness.

The invention of literary anthologies, canonical readings, and sourcebooks goes back to antiquity and debates over their construction are perhaps just as archaic. Within the history of western education, the genre is a result of ancient and then medieval teachers and religious figures who privileged the teaching of texts from Homer, Virgil, or Augustine for generations.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 12/20/2019 - 8:12am by Sarah E. Bond.

Special tours for AIA / SCS: January 2, 2020, 3:00-5:00 pm
Woven Interiors: Furnishing Early Medieval Egypt and Cotsen Textile Traces Study Center
The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum
701 21st Street, NW, Washington, D.C.

Woven Interiors (closing on Jan. 5), co-organized by The Textile Museum and Dumbarton Oaks, presents 45 exceptional interior textiles from the villas, palaces, churches, mosques, and humble homes of late antique and early medieval Egypt (300–1000). Join us for curator-led tours of the exhibition and for a preview of The Cotsen Textile Traces Study Center. Tours will rotate throughout the 2 hour period, so we hope you can join us as your schedules permit. Museum/tour admission free with conference badge or proof of AIA/SCS membership.

The GWUM-TM is located just 1.4 miles from the Marriott Marquis. In addition to walking or taking a taxi/Uber, visitors can use the Metro: from the Mt. Vernon Sq. Station, take the Yellow/Green Metro toward Branch Ave./Huntington, exit at the third stop at L’Enfant Plaza; transfer to Blue/Orange/Silver toward Franconia/Springfield/Vienna/Wiehle-Reston, and exit at the sixth stop at Foggy Bottom-GWU stop; the Museum is just 0.4 miles walk, two blocks east and one block south between H and G Sts. on 21st St. NW. 

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 12/19/2019 - 12:06pm by Erik Shell.

Latin Lexicography Summer School: 20–24 July, 2020

          The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Institute invites applications for its annual Latin Lexicography Summer School, which will take place in Munich from July 20 to 24, 2020. We welcome participation by researchers at any stage in their career whose work engages rigorously and critically with Latin vocabulary, whether in specific texts or across the entire corpus of ancient Latin. In addition to philology, relevant disciplines include intellectual history, epigraphy, linguistics, literary and textual criticism, medieval and Renaissance studies, philosophy, and theology. This year Prof. Wolfgang de Melo will be present as the scholar in residence.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Wed, 12/18/2019 - 2:38pm by Erik Shell.

The Fourteenth International Conference of the Taiwan Association of Classical, Medieval and Renaissance Studies (TACMRS)

23-24 October 2020
National Taiwan University

Call for Papers

Food: Sacrificial, Spiritual, and Secular

Food, whether secular or spiritual, physical or metaphysical, human or nonhuman, has been an important issue throughout the history of this planet. Human history is a long story of appetitive contest with nature and the environment, while consumption is an empowering practice that involves struggle and sacrifice. The matter of food may illuminate or complicate histories of labor, leisure, science, production, ethical considerations, religious discourse and practices, and environmental concerns.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Wed, 12/18/2019 - 8:55am by Erik Shell.

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