When the University of Bologna’s first recorded scholar, Irnerio, began huddling over scrolls in 1088 (some four centuries before the printing of the Gutenberg Bible), his purpose was to learn and apply Latin grammar, rhetoric and logic to the constructs of law. That basic schema of study later was reproduced at Oxford, Cambridge and in a new colony across the pond when Cambridge graduate John Harvard bequeathed his library to a new “colledge”. Over time, traditional university subject matter offerings extended to arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. All were then considered to be part of the humanities.

Today, however, public discourse often paints the humanities as less relevant (and certainly less useful) than science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). So much so, in fact, that entire conferences are devoted to promoting the visibility and value a liberal arts education. Humanities departments at elite colleges in the US encounter “a backdrop of anxiety about the future of humanities disciplines”, writes Professor Jean E. Howard, chair of the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

As of 2012, 16.5% of undergraduate degrees awarded in the US were in the humanities, whereas STEM (plus business degrees) made up more than 42% of total degrees granted. These figures have shifted only by about a percentage point over the last two decades. But that 1% has been enough to close entire departments, including one at a university in Pennsylvania. It’s enough to have incited one state governor, under pressure from regional employers looking for STEM graduates, to propose lowering tuition for those students indicating that they will concentrate in one of the STEM fields. It’s also enough to make professors nervous at Harvard, where the number of humanities majors has dropped by 20% over the past decade.

“Everybody knows that STEM is the better investment,” says Andreas Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), co-author of the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2014 report. “Governments know that. Parents know that.”

The irony, he says, is that “demand for STEM is rising much faster than supply. In fact, among students, there’s a trend away from STEM. It’s somewhat stagnant in the Western world.” In fact, more than half of new university students in OECD countries in 2012 chose to study the humanities, social sciences and law, while only about 25% chose STEM subjects. The numbers are slightly better in some Asian countries, including South Korea, where one-third of students choose STEM majors.

The reason for that discrepancy is twofold: a lack of strong numeracy training before university, especially in Western countries, and the expense of a STEM education. Public institutions, especially those in Europe, says Mr Schleicher, are loath to invest limited funds in STEM departments. “You need laboratories. It’s much more expensive than training a lawyer or someone who studies languages,” he points out.

Governments are heeding the message. In Britain, where 59% of businesses in STEM fields believe there is a skills gap, the government says it is investing £385m to support STEM teaching at the university level. In March, the Confederation of British Industry lobbied the government to go even further—to cut STEM tuition fees for students themselves.

The Chinese government, too, is focusing on its higher education investments. In an effort to create a more broadly educated public, China has doubled the number of the country’s universities over the past 10 years to 2,400 and is shooting for 195m college graduates by 2020. Although entire institutions of higher learning in China, such as Sanya University, are devoted to the liberal arts, the country’s current five-year plan (through 2015) aims to invest $1.6trn to support college programmes focusing on subjects such as biotechnology, alternative energy and advanced information technologies.

The implicit message in such government investments is that STEM is essential to the evolving, increasingly digital white-collar economy. (Governments such as Germany’s also support manufacturing and other blue-collar sectors via vocational training programmes.) A university education, seen through that lens, may be thought of as more of a training ground than exploratory experience, a time to lay firm foundations for a concrete career, not ponder Kant.

This represents a change in the nature of a university education: For centuries, it was the purview of a privileged male, one whose social standing did not need a degree to achieve advancement. But even in 1757, education could open doors. University of Pennsylvania records from that year reveal that some students “came from respectable, but less privileged backgrounds, often seeking training … that would equip them for prompt and profitable employ”.

In those days, employable training might have meant maritime navigation. Today, it might just as well mean SAAS, Hadoop and data analysis. No matter the era, prompt and profitable employ stemming from an education has been inextricably tied to the subject matter’s perceived value in and to society. Value today often means commercial value—service economies in China, the EU and the US are becoming increasingly dependent on data, technology and scientific advancement.

And, in fact, a STEM degree currently offers more earning potential than any degree in the humanities. In the US, STEM job salaries for those with 0-5 years’ experience can start at around $60,000. By contrast, a communications, English or sociology major can expect to start out at around $40,000 annually. The pay differential (if not the actual amount) is similar in the EU and in China.

To be fair, one’s college major is not necessarily the ultimate predictor of lifetime earnings; some of the world’s most successful people, including Richard Branson and Bill Gates, famously either dropped out of college or did not attend at all. As an aspiring professional opera singer, the late Norio Ogha, former president and chairman of Sony Corporation, studied music.

But, as Mr Schleicher points out, if one can go from STEM to liberal arts easily, the other way around is much more difficult. That’s why Canadian Julie Payette, a gifted classical pianist and singer, has said she chose to study engineering—music could remain a hobby while the window for STEM was small. Her choice led her to becoming an astronaut.

Whatever the degree, the most important aspect of education for employers remains that students learn how to think analytically. A 2013 Inside Higher Ed survey, for example, found that 84% of the business leaders felt the ability to think critically was just as important as the ability to think creatively.

“It’s all important,” says Dr Sangeeta Bhatia, a MD and engineering PhD famed for her research into regenerative biology. Liberal arts, she says, can help foster creativity and give a broad cultural context to STEM. And STEM can foster analytical thinking, logical sequencing and a penchant for problem solving. “At MIT, we view STEM as part of the canon, part of cultural liberty, just like the Odyssey,” she continues. “We require all undergraduates to take biology, no matter the major.”

Fifteen years down the road, students of today may find themselves in careers not yet imagined while they were in school. Or, they may find themselves working remotely, with virtual team members located across the globe. The kind of broad cultural understanding supported by a humanities background, combined with specialised STEM knowledge, may help set such workers apart and keep them relevant as they navigate a changing workplace landscape.

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This article first appeared on GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum. 

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Author: Holly Hickman writes for GE Look Ahead.

Image: Students sit for an exam at the French Louis Pasteur Lycee in Strasbourg, June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Vincent Kessle