10 The Great Debate

What would life be like without the world’s greatest artists, writers, and philosophers? Imagine – no Da Vinci, Beethoven, or Shakespeare. No Michelangelo, Plato, or Mozart. Yet there is a strong possibility that in the future, the world will see very little of this type of genius. With the drive in education towards science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), arts education is on the verge of extinction. Yet, many people still believe in the importance of an arts education. The University of British Columbia’s Vice-Chancellor and President, Santa J. Onos, is one prominent advocate for the classic liberal arts education, believing it is necessary to build an understanding of the overall human condition (CBC Radio, 2020). Purely academic programs, the President argues, will have “little impact on the health of society” (CBC Radio, 2020, para 2). In light of this argument, it is important to explore how the two types of education compare.

A classical liberal arts education has been around for two thousand years, and – until recently – has been the foundation of most programs at higher educational institutions. This type of education focuses on studying the great masters of art, music, history, philosophy, science, and literature (Scoggin, 2018). Its aim is to promote intellectual and ethical thought and to create responsible citizens and leaders of the world (Schneider, 2004). It allows for students to see and accept various interpretations of an issue, to agree to disagree on matters (Scoggin, 2018). Students with a liberal arts education tend to be cultured, well-informed, critically thinking human beings who care about the world and their role in it (Cote & Allahar, 2011). A liberal arts education allows students to make vital connections between the events of the past, present, and possible future, and it allows for an understanding of their personal experiences in relation to the greater world (Barker, 2000). This does not necessarily hold true for a STEM education.

A STEM focused education has more of an academic application that leads to the ability to do a certain job. It’s a form of higher-level vocational training without a broad range of subjects as a base (Zaloom, 2019). This often results in students having less world knowledge and fewer overall ‘soft’ skills but more individual skills targeted to a specific job.  In 2010, the White House called for greater STEM education in its appeal to ‘Educate to Innovate’. This call was in reaction to the country’s dire need for technically skilled science and mathematical majors in the workforce (Coble & Allen, 2005). This same dire need is also felt in Canada (Universities Canada, 2016). STEM degrees focus on innovative thinking, teamwork, and technical skills as they pertain to solving real-world problems (Hom, 2014). They concentrate on original ideas and skills to tackle 21stcentury problems rather than studying the great minds and historical events of the past.

In conclusion, the traditional liberal arts education offers more of a ‘general’ education than that of a STEM degree. The latter is more focused on skills that will help solve authentic real-world problems. But why must one be at the exclusion of another? Perhaps, the answer is a combination of the two. Unsurprisingly, this solution has already been implemented at some universities through new STEAM focus programs (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics). STEAM is the way forward, not STEM. The truth lies in the words of UBC President Santa Onos who is himself a medical biologist: “I believe I’m a better scientist. I believe I am a better administrator. I believe I’m a better teacher. I believe I’m a better father and husband. And I believe that I am a better scholar because of my liberal arts education…” (CBC Radio, 2020, para 4).



Barker, C. (2000). Liberal arts education for a global society. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

CBC Radio (2020). Education without liberal arts is a threat to humanity, argues UBC President. Retrieved February 4, 2020 from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/education-without-liberal-arts-is-a-threat-to-humanity-argues-ubc-president-1.5426112

Coble, C., & Allen, M. (2005). Keeping America competitive: Five strategies to improve mathematics and science education. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Retrieved February 9, 2020 from from http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/62/19/6219.pdf.

Cote, J. & Allahar, A. (2011). Lowering higher education: The rise of corporate universities and the fall of liberal education. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hom, E. (2014). What is stem? Retrieved February 9, 2020 from https://www.livescience.com/43296-what-is-stem-education.html

Schneider, C. (2004). Practical liberal education: Formative themes for the reinvention of liberal learning. Liberal Education, 90(2), 6-11.

Scoggin, D. (2018). The lasting value of a classical liberal arts education. Retrieved February 9, 2020 from https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/lasting-value-classical-liberal-arts-education

Zaloom, C. (2019). Stem is overrated: College is not just a job prep, and the job market changes constantly. Retrieved February 9, 2020 from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/college-not-job-prep/597487/


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Contextual Grammar Exercises




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