In Defense of The Liberal Arts, Fine Arts, Humanities, and All Other Subjects – There’s More to Plants Than STEMs

There is an incredible emphasis on the STEM curriculum approach in our public schools. And I fear that because of the limiting of resources and reduction of per-pupil funding by our state government that other subject areas have and will suffer for it.

There is no doubt that having a unique approach to engaging students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is important as we still adjust to instilling 21st century skills in our students. However, without the skills derived from other fields of study such as the liberal arts, the social sciences, the fine arts, and the humanities, that sole focus on STEM will create very knowledgeable, but one-dimensional students.

Think of a physical body where all limbs are functional and useful. Yet, the right arm is much more developed and favored than the others. In exercises that require only the use of the right arm, this person does well. In exercises that require full body coordination and strength, this person is weakened.

This century requires a much more fully coordinated workforce and a more dynamic world economy. Communication, presentation, collaboration, and understanding of other cultures past and present are just as critical as the products that we produce.

Many decision makers in Raleigh believe that our country’s ability to maintain its position and even lead the world in innovation and economic development rests solely on how well our students become enmeshed with STEM curriculum and its related fields.

I disagree. Not because I teach a subject area that is not STEM, but because I believe that the teachers of STEM subjects that I work with see and value the skill sets that non-STEM teachers teach.

I live in Winston-Salem. Some call it “The Dash” (actually it’s a hyphen, but makes a great name for a baseball team), the “Twin City”, or the “Camel City”. If you look on city limit signs for WS, you will see that it is also called “The City of Arts and Innovation.”

We have a major film festival (RiverRun), one of the most acclaimed art schools in the nation (NC School of the Arts) and three universities that offer degrees in fields associated with liberal arts. But not ironically, our largest employer is Wake Forest Baptist Hospital, a major medical research institution and healthcare provider. Wake Forest Baptist might be one of the first entities to tell our lawmakers that all skill sets learned from the non-STEM subjects are incredibly valuable to their success.

My wife works for Wake Forest Baptist Medical School. She has a journalism degree. She possesses a skill set that allows for the medical school to help raise funds that allow more people to do research that in turn help other people.

For a state that expends a lot of energy and money allowing for “choice” in our schools, is it not ironic that many lawmakers including our own governor seem to be favoring some of the choices above others?

These same lawmakers should know that being able to take advantage of any option in life is contingent on critical thinking skills, problem solving capabilities, effective communications abilities, and an understanding of what has worked in the past. Simply put, all subject areas are vital in preparing our students to make those choices.

Gov. McCrory has been fairly vocal about creating more emphasis on STEM curriculum. Even in his 2015 budget proposal, he wanted to offer graduate degree pay bumps to those who taught STEM classes (when it has been removed for all other teachers) and he introduced STEMAccelerator to boot. McCrory said,

““High quality STEM education is critical to North Carolina’s future prosperity,” McCrory said in a written release. “To address the gap in education and workforce needs, we must provide resources and support for teachers’ professional growth – especially in the critical areas of science and mathematics. The STEMAccelerator will help us meet one of my administration’s goals of transforming the teaching profession into a rewarding, long-term career ( ”

But with all of this emphasis on STEM, the acronym itself suggests that there is more that students need to be exposed to when it comes to creating an innovative citizenry for this new age.

Why? Because a “STEM” is only part of the larger flower or plant. And while the STEM is important, so are the roots, leaves, soil, sun, and water in creating the bloom, fruit, crop, or plant.

Here is a simple illustration:


Or you can get really technical:


The point is, if we are to create a vibrant citizenry, we need to make sure that we pay attention to the whole student. And that means that we need to make sure that the very students who many claim need to be immersed in STEM curriculum are also nurtured with the arts – both the liberal and the fine arts.

Think about it. Before a plant can grow it needs to have a good root system that allows it to take in nutrients from the soil and water from the ground. The more elaborate the root system is, the better chance that the plant will grow and thrive.

Much like a root system, we make sure to give our students a foundation early. Remember the three “R’s”? Two of them refer to reading and writing, which are the basis for language arts. Reading is practically the most foundational aspect for almost every other type of learning. Establishing and nurturing that root system must happen. Besides, the bigger the plant, the need for a more elaborate root system. That’s why we always need good language arts instruction. And writing (all types of writing) enhances our language abilities. It allows us to interact with the environment.

The leaves are like the social sciences and other humanities. Leaves take in the sunshine and use photosynthesis to literally feed the plant. The leaves interact with what is around the plant. Much like the leaves, the social sciences and humanities lend perspective and teach lessons about what is around us and how we can interact with those entities. History, sociology, civics, health, and other types of classes lend us a lens to see how the world works and how we can function in that world. They also teach what has worked in the past and what has worked in other climates.

There is so much evidence and research that the fine arts enhance any student’s ability to improve in all academic areas. Theater, music, visual arts, and dance help students expand themselves and develop self-esteem, confidence, creativity, and self-expression. Think of the bloom or the fruit of a plant. What makes that plant attractive or wanted? What makes the fruit of produce eye-catching? Why would we be drawn to it? The very appearance and appeal to the senses has a lot to do with just how a plant presents itself.

Gov. McCrory was quoted along with many other high ranking Republicans this past Feb. 21st in the New York Times seemingly belittling the humanities and arts. Patricia Cohen reported in “A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding”,

“What has incensed many educators is not so much the emphasis on work force development but the disdain for the humanities, particularly among Republicans. Several Republicans have portrayed a liberal arts education as an expendable, sometimes frivolous luxury that taxpayers should not be expected to pay for. The Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has called for more welders and fewer philosophers. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida criticized anthropologists, and Mr. McCrory belittled gender studies” (

Ironic that in Feb. McCrory would “belittle” gender studies and, lo and behold, a month later we get HB2, otherwise known as the “bathroom bill”.

What McCrory, Rubio, and Scott forget is that they control the very soil and water that is used to help plants (students) grow. By fully funding our public schools, they ensure that the soil is nutrient rich and able to help grow plants. By removing obstacles like vouchers and unregulated charter schools, they can ensure that there is enough rain falling on the plants for them to grow.

When they say we don’t need as many liberal arts, humanities, social sciences, and fine arts, they are literally saying that plants are nothing but stems. And the stem cannot survive on its own. It needs the other parts.

I truly believe that good teachers in good schools not only value the skills that other teachers help students obtain, there is an understanding that the entire faculty and staff is one giant collaborative team. Cross-curricular cooperation should be common and chances to help reinforce concepts across subject areas show students the worth of what is being taught.

I find it beneficial that the science department chair in my school is a wordsmith. The social studies chair led a school – wide initiative in reading across the curriculum. There are the math teachers who have students explain concepts in short essays. The dance teacher has students do research projects using citation. Art classes are full of wiling participants. CTE classes have students who take AP classes as well because their curiosity leads them to diversify their outlook and skillset as well as their transcripts.

It is disheartening to see lawmakers favor a set of courses over others.

Because they are all important.