Comment: Forum Physics World  January 2018

Why the arts matter

With many countries doing all they can to get more students into science and technology, can there ever be too much of a good thing? Paul Axelrod warns against ignoring other subjects

The perception that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects matter more, economically and academically, than the humanities and social sciences abounds around the world. Political and educational leaders everywhere hail our universities’ role in driving economic growth and then implementing policies that serve to achieve this goal. One stark example of this is China’s current plan to turn 42 universities into “world class” science and technology powerhouses.


Shaping society A bigger percentage of US students are pursuing degrees in engineering and the sciences, while degrees in the humanities and business have seen a recent decline. (The American Academy of Arts and Sciences)

Students are responding to these signals by enrolling in increasingly large numbers in STEM at the expense of the arts and social sciences In the UK, for example, the number of students who enrolled in historical and philosophical studies dropped by almost 7% between 2006 and 2015, but the percentage of those in the mathematical sciences increased by 38% and in engineering by 24% during the same time. Similar patterns have occurred in the US. This, I would argue, is a worrisome trend that we need to reflect upon critically.

While STEM programmes are a central component of universities’ curricular and research missions, so too are the liberal arts and they should not be marginalized in market-driven, academic prioritization schemes. Their contribution to cultural and civic life is crucial and historically enduring. Philosophers and political theorists have deepened our understanding of the ideological systems that govern our lives. Historians preserve “cultural memory” and provide perspective on contemporary conflicts, while novelists, poets and artists exhibit the infinite power of the imagination. Nations that nourish these pursuits enhance the civility and spirit of their communities.

Like engineers and computer scientists, social science and humanities graduates contribute enormously to economic life. Tourists everywhere flock to galleries, museums and historic sites (run so often by higher-education graduates), making tourism one of the world’s largest industries. The student who has written a thesis on food insecurity has learned how to conduct independent research, problem solve and communicate effectively – skills that companies consider essential. Those who are multilingual and have knowledge of foreign cultures help forge economic and social relations between nations. University graduates often end up in rewarding jobs that seem unrelated to their original specialization. But this is evidence of the versatility, not the irrelevance, of a high-quality university education.

Employers and recruiters in the STEM sector understand the added value of broad academic training

Employers and recruiters in the STEM sector understand the added value of broad academic training. Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder and chief executive of Slack Technologies, a remarkably successful US message platforming start up, holds an undergraduate philosophy degree from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, as well as a Master’s degree in the philosophy and history of science from the University of Cambridge in the UK. He also hired Anna Pickard, who has a theatre degree from the UK, to be his editorial director due to her talent for creative writing.

Of course, no university graduate can be guaranteed a lucrative and rewarding career. Higher education is not insulated from economic downturns and instability. In buoyant times, STEM graduates earn more than those from the arts and social sciences, though in the long term, the latter thrive and do far better than those with college level or no post-secondary education. In bad times, graduates from all fields struggle, including those from applied professional programmes.

Occupational hazards

In the late 1990s, in response to industry shortages, the government of the province of Ontario in Canada injected millions of dollars into universities to double the number of engineering and computer-science graduates. In a few short years, Nortel Networks, the Canadian-based high-tech giant that led the lobbying effort to expand such training programmes, collapsed. This resulted in thousands of employees losing their jobs while universities were left with under-enrolled science and tech departments.

No industry, including business and technology, escaped the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. As economies now rebound, so do opportunities across the occupational spectrum, and the historical cycle unfolds. One enduring, and likely growing, problem is precarious or part-time employment. This especially affects unskilled labour, but the university-educated, including many in STEM fields, are not immune from part-time work with low wages and no benefits.

Even universities fuel this precarious economy. Between 1975 and 2014 the proportion of faculty with full-time tenured positions in the US fell by 26% and the number of those with part-time instructional appointments grew by 70%. Precarious employment is a systemic problem from which no sector is exempt and must be addressed by enlightened social and economic policy.

Notwithstanding the undulations of the international economy, science and technology subjects are considered leaders in the innovation wars now underway in advanced economies, and universities are principal soldiers on the innovation frontlines. And yet high-tech employment by no means leads these nations’ occupational sectors, constituting just 5.6% of the labour force in Canada and 5.9% in the US. That is bound to lead to a lot of disappointed science graduates who went into the field dreaming of a stellar scientific career. Educational institutions that are concerned about the employability of graduates should avoid over-investing in these areas and instead sustain academic and curricular diversity, including the liberal arts, which engage students in crucial and enduring questions about the human condition, one of which is the future of work itself.

As Stephen Hawking pointed out last year, artificial intelligence and robotics are likely to render huge portions of the world’s population unemployable. This is a profound challenge requiring the deep thinking of those in all academic disciplines. China, especially, needs to cultivate such learning in its universities, which are not known for fostering academic freedom, critical thinking and intellectual autonomy. Their institutions’ high rankings in STEM areas will seem rather hollow in the absence of these core university values.

  • This article is adapted from a version first published in YaleGlobal Online.