Could the path to scientific and technological innovation lie in literature, philosophy, and history?
That's what Fareed Zakaria argues in a Washington Post column. In it he says that rather than focusing exclusively on science, technology, engineering, and math, students should also be encouraged to pursue studies in the liberal arts if the United States wants to remain a technology leader.
While politicians are pushing for greater emphasis and resources be poured into STEM education, Zakaria says that such a myopic approach to learning may actually be counter-productive.
"This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future," he writes. Innovation is more than just technical expertise, "but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need, and want," and a liberal education, he argues, provides the kinds of critical thinking skills and creativity required for true innovation.
He quotes Apple's late Co-founder Steve Jobs as saying, "'it's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.'"
While the US may have middling test scores — in the most recent results, among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the US ranked 27th in math, 20th in science, and 17th in reading — that is not a new development, Zakaria says. For the past 50 years, the US has lagged behind its peers on international tests, yet it "has dominated the world of science, technology, research, and innovation."
The reason is that the US' economic system stresses flexibility. Work cultures are non-hierarchical and merit-based and operate "with energy and dynamism," he says, adding that Sweden and Israel also are highly innovative nations in spite of doing poorly on OECD test rankings.
He contrasts the US educational system with those in Asia, which puts a premium on memorization and test-taking. Some Asian countries are now trying to add liberal education features to their educational systems, and Zakaria says that Alibaba Founder Jack Ma recently said that China lags the West in innovation because the Chinese education, while teaching the basics very well, "does not nourish a student's complete intelligence, allowing her to range freely, experiment, and enjoy herself while learning."
Zakaria further points to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, whom he describes as a "classic liberal arts student who also happened to be passionately interested in computers." In high school Zuckerberg studied ancient Greek and while at Harvard majored in psychology.