Though STEM education continues to be emphasized in many school districts and college campuses across the country, groups of educators and business leaders are making a strong push for the integration of the humanities in the curriculum of primary school and higher education. 

On March 7, a panel consisting of Karl Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Army and former ambassador to Afghanistan, Duke University President Richard Brodhead, UNC-System President Tom Ross and Congressman David Price-(D) sat down with the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Jeff Braden to discuss the state of the humanities in the current education system.  

The panel discussion was held in the James B. Hunt Jr. Library and about 200 people attended. 

The report, “The Heart of the Matter,” was commissioned by Congress to the Academy of Arts & Sciences, which brought together university presidents, societies such as the National Academy of Engineering as well as the CEO of major companies such as Boeing. 

The panelists said this report was intended to have the kind of analysis delivered by the 2007 “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report, which spurred much of the drive for higher standards in STEM education, so that the United States could produce workers competitive with those in Asia.

According to Price, the 2007 Congress worked past its differences to implement many of the guidelines presented in that report. With today’s political gridlock, Price said he is skeptical that the report will generate significant congressional action.

Brodhead, who is a scholar of 19th-century English literature, said the gathering of people who helped author the report was not unlike that of Noah’s Ark.

“There wasn’t necessarily two of every species, but each person represented a different one,” Brodhead said. 

Eikenberry, who is now a professor at Stanford University, said although soldiers are expected to be masters of military science, modern warfare is incredibly complex.

“There’s an engineering dimension to it, and a technology dimension to it,” Eikenberry said. “If you’re a young soldier or marine, and you’re looking to your platoon leader or commanding officer, there’s an understanding that leader is an expert is an expert in military science.

Eikenberry said, however, that to be an expert in military science in warfare is not enough to be a capable leader in the military.

“We’re asking them [our soliders] to make decisions every day that go into the very essence and question of morality,” Eikenberry said. “We expect all our military leaders to be experts in military science, but if you’re a solider you want that leader to have picked up Shakespeare’s Henry V which contains tales of morality and leadership.”

Price said in today’s competitive global workforce, it is not enough to be proficient in technical skills.

“There is a common set of skills,” Price said. “Knowing logic, knowing how to make an argument, having a sense of one’s history, those are common elements of a good, common and serviceable education. We often hear from our competitors in our world economy, China and India, who are seeking out the qualities of an American education, and you inevitably hear something about the cultivation of creativity and critical thinking.

Brodhead said people tend to forget the critical nature of communication in technical fields such as engineering. 

“An engineer that doesn’t know how to communicate isn’t going to have the same opportunities or impact as someone who does,” Brodhead said. “Boeing employees a lot of people, and a lot of them are engineers, but you’re never going to rise above a certain point unless you have skills in communication and empathy across a diverse workforce.”

 All the panelists present agreed that STEM fields and humanities should and must not stand in opposition to each other, but must be part of a broader liberal arts education designed to give students flexibility in their jobs and their careers. 

Andy Taylor, professor of political science, announced he and Walt Wolfram, a professor of English, will be tackling the initiative at the state level. 

“Dr. Wolfram and I will be soliciting input from a broad array of individuals across the state from education, business, the military, and the policy and political worlds on their thoughts about the future of the humanities and social sciences in North Carolina,” Taylor said. 

Taylor said he and Wolfram are still working on those plans.