Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

STEM-humanities rivalry? Understanding

University fees shouldn’t dictate students’ ability to receive a well-rounded education. Picture: Karleen Minney.

Anna Owen, The last thing we need is STEM-humanities rivalry, The Canberra Times, 6 August 2020

Last year I was reflecting on the role of the humanities in primary and secondary education.

At the time, I raised the point that it has been necessary, and wise, to develop a workforce with skill capabilities in the areas of information technology, engineering, the sciences and mathematics. However, this should not be at expense of the humanities, social sciences or the creative and performing arts.

It is timely to reflect on this again after the federal government recently announced that the cost of studying humanities at university is set to double – a move that may discourage students from pursuing a degree in these disciplines.

After 20 years in education, it is my strong recommendation that early learning and the primary years are too early to choose a young person’s educational trajectory. You may be surprised to know that I also believe the secondary years are too early to choose a young person’s educational and career trajectory. And I am actually a supporter of the offerings in the tertiary sector that begin first-year university as a generalist degree. This is why I have spent the majority of my career in Grammar schools, or schools that offer the International Baccalaureate, as these course combinations ensure students are armed with a broad, liberal education. A quick search for “What skills do employees value?” will underscore the opinion that skills and behaviours are closely linked and are equally valued.

What better way to understand the importance of the humanities and social sciences than to look back in history? Have you ever heard the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same”? When studying the past, history – and the social sciences in general – becomes the greatest weapon to preparing yourself for the future. Yes, we are in a period of disruption (digital, pandemic or otherwise), but humans are humans. Our best work is done together; we will still need to work as a human collective, seek the crowd’s wisdom and be more discerning in our consumption of all forms of media. Now, more so than before, the understanding of what makes us “human” attains a higher value within large organisations and on social media. Regardless of a student’s future academic pursuits and careers, the importance of understanding civility and civilisations has never been greater.

Which is why we need the humanities, in combination with other disciplines, including the sciences and technologies. Humanities should not be replaced by STEM disciplines, nor simply be part of an uncomfortable truce across the table. The job market has always been largely unpredictable and is in a constant state of flux, but only if you are describing the market by “job title” or “job skill”. This is too shallow and linear a view. The job market has been remarkably stable, and has valued very similar qualities in potential employees or leaders, if you look to history. Those who study a range of disciplines are developing skills within themselves to face the future of work, thrive in the future of work and, put simply, influence the future of work.

The correction or recalibration in costs and funding at the tertiary level is the reason. Binary thinking, creating an imaginary war between faculties or questioning the pursuit of deep disciplinarian learning across a broad and liberal curriculum should not be pitched as the reason. Communicating with integrity, of course, is a humanities-based skill.

Whilst this is a decision that has the biggest impact on the tertiary sector, we will continue to graduate students from Canberra Girls Grammar School that value all disciplines. For us, it is critical to understand age and stage in a child or young person’s intellectual growth, and carefully instil in them the value of education, rather than taking an engineered path to influence subject choice.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2020
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