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Originally published September 1, 2012 at 4:00 PM | Page modified September 4, 2012 at 5:45 AM

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Op-ed: Don't pit science and math education against the liberal arts

Guest columnists Sandi Everlove and Michael Zimmeran say the competition between the liberal arts and a STEM education is a false conflict.

Special to The Times

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ONE of the skills that students who study the liberal arts learn is how to distinguish a real controversy from a manufactured controversy.

Recently, administrators from academic institutions across the state of Washington gathered to promote the value and importance of the liberal arts.

Some fear the emphasis placed on STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- because businesses are urging the state to fund these areas of study. Businesses need graduates trained in science and technology to fill their jobs. This effort has prompted some to argue a false conflict: That we must choose between liberal arts and STEM disciplines.

The reality of the situation is dramatically different. STEM disciplines should not be seen as being apart from the liberal arts. They are a part of the liberal arts. Second, narrowly educating students, regardless of field, dramatically limits options.

Studying the broad range of disciplines encompassed in a liberal-arts education -- literature, history, politics, languages, art, philosophy -- feeds academic success in general and success in STEM disciplines in particular. Scientists and engineers need the critical thinking skills and creativity to design new solutions that come from liberal arts course work. And they need the perspective gained from studying the humanities and arts if they are to be able to think deeply about the social implications of their work.

It is equally important for writers, philosophers and linguists to understand mathematics and the scientific method, to be able to differentiate between pattern and anecdote, and distinguish science from nonscience and nonsense.

The controversy isn't between STEM and the liberal arts.

America does have a STEM problem. We're neither educating enough students who go into those fields nor educating a citizenry that is even rudimentarily literate in the sciences. The science and mathematics test scores generated by our students are significantly lower than those of our international competitors, sending deep repercussions throughout our economy.

But fixing the STEM education problem in a meaningful way can't be done simply by improving science and math instruction, or by inducing more students to study STEM fields. As biologists we both understand the nature of complex systems and recognize that when attention is paid to only one facet of such a system the impact is likely to be far less impressive than expected.

American higher education will be most effective when students, regardless of major, receive a broad education rich with the rigorous study of many subjects. Such an education helps people communicate effectively, solve complex problems, think critically and creatively and work with others as part of a team.

Some educated citizens will be scientists and some will be musicians, some will be engineers while others will be linguists, but all will help us understand what it means to be human.

When an imaginary controversy is promoted between STEM disciplines and the liberal arts, all it does is divert our attention from focusing on the larger problems associated with the lack of public funding for higher education. Such false controversies make poor public policy.

Sandi Everlove, left, is chief learning officer of Washington STEM, a nonprofit dedicated advancing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Michael Zimmerman is vice president for academic affairs at The Evergreen State College.

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