Find the problem fast and solve it. It is part of the American character. We are competitive, a bit uppity, rebellious and ready to risk. Technology and globalization have disrupted our world, and liberal arts degrees — so-called “degrees to nowhere” — are out of favor. Some are now saying we need work-based skills, because we have to compete with other nations, such as China and India, that now graduate more scientists and engineers. Utah business and policymakers are now trying to make our education systems, elementary and higher education, competitive with emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, believing that’s where the new jobs can be found.
Fareed Zakaria, columnist, has just published a new book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” raising the question as to why the rush to have our education system focus on testing and STEM as well as to see our liberal education system as ineffective. The United States, along with Israel and Sweden, does poorly on international testing; yet they dominate the world of science, technology, innovation and research. He shows how the educational needs of a society change with the times and how the nature of work changes with each major social and economic shift. Also changing is how success is measured.
Zakaria says the U.S. spends more money per capita on education than most countries, yet scores poorly on international tests with its peers. In 2012, the most recent international test given to 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Zakaria notes that the U.S. came in 21st if test scores were averaged in math, science and reading — behind the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia. He goes on to point out that Sweden came in 28th and Israel 29th on the same test.
When comparing the United States to other nations on international tests since the first such exam was given in 12 countries in 1964, we’ve never ranked very well. Yet, in spite of these poor scores, the United States “has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation” over that same time period, writes Zakaria. Adding that Sweden and Israel also do well with innovation, research and development, Zakaria does not view these test scores as “good predictors of our national success.”
While many praise Singapore’s education system for its high-test scores, years ago its then-minister of education told Zakaria that Singapore would like to learn from America by seeking ways to improve innovation and entrepreneurship among students, “We both have meritocracies. Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well — like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority.”
The value of a liberal education, according to Zakaria, is that it teaches you how to write (which makes you think), how to speak and how to learn. “What remain constant are the skills you acquire and the methods you learn to approach problems. Given how quickly industries and professions are evolving these days, you will need to apply these skills to new challenges all the time.”
A liberal education teaches one the love of learning; like a good book you can’t put down. And test scores are not the predictors of national success. Harvard President Drew Faust once said a liberal education should give people the skills “that will help them get ready for their sixth job, not their first job.” Maybe there is something to the "degrees to nowhere."
Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee and as Utah industrial commissioner. His White House appointments included deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education member. Email: email@example.com