Chester Finn & Diane Ravitch: The liberal arts make us competitive in the ways that matter most





[Mr. Finn and Ms. Ravitch, former assistant U.S. Secretaries of Education and members of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education at the Hoover Institution, are editors of "Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children" (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2007).]

In a globalizing economy, America's competitive edge depends in large measure on how well our schools prepare tomorrow's workforce.

And notwithstanding the fact that Congress and the White House are now controlled by opposing parties, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are bent on devising new programs and boosting education spending.

Consider the measure -- the America Competes Act -- that recently passed Congress and is on its way to the president's desk. The bill will substantially increase government funding for science, technology, engineering and math ("STEM" subjects). President Bush, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid support this initiative. Nearly all of the 2008 presidential candidates endorse its goals. And 38 state legislatures have also recently enacted STEM bills. The buzz is as constant as summer cicadas.

Indeed, STEM has swiftly emerged as the hottest education topic since No Child Left Behind. They're related, too. NCLB puts a premium on reading and math skills and also pays some attention to science. Marry it with STEM and you get heavy emphasis on a particular suite of skills.

But there is a problem here. Worthy though these skills are, they ignore at least half of what has long been regarded as a "well rounded" education in Western civilization: literature, art, music, history, civics and geography. Indeed, a new study from the Center on Education Policy says that, since NCLB's enactment, nearly half of U.S. school districts have reduced the time their students spend on subjects such as art and music.

This is a mistake that will ill-serve our children while misconstruing the true nature of American competitiveness and the challenges we face in the 21st century....



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