This article and this article are two recent pieces that express distress at the current promotion of STEM fields in American discourse. The piece by Christopher Scalia specifically calls out conservatives (he regards himself as a conservative) for their over-emphasis on STEM fields and for "trashing" the liberal arts.
Let me say at the outset that my own degree (in English) and all of my publications are, officially speaking, in the humanities, although the majority of my publications are at a very STEM-like edge of the humanities (epistemology and probability theory). My husband is a professional philosopher, and I am an at-home homeschooling mother, so the humanities are, literally, our bread and butter. Moreover, I have great sympathy and admiration for (what I have heard of) a school like Thomas Aquinas College in California with its great books program.
In theory, I believe in the ideal of a well-rounded education that Christopher Scalia is promoting. In theory, I love literature, history, philosophy, and art history. In theory, I would love to see students gain a multi-faceted liberal arts education as college undergraduates to the extent that they do not already have that when they graduate from high school. They could learn to love and comprehend the great books of the Western canon and gain a deeper understanding of great works of art.
In practice, the picture is far different. The elephant in the room, which I notice that neither Scalia nor Zakaria addresses, is all the utter dreck that is too often actually taught in the humanities.
When I obtained a PhD in English from Vanderbilt University in 1995, the rot was already firmly in place. In order to get my requisite graduate credits without taking Queer Theory and other postmodernism (which I did not entirely avoid) I had to do repeated independent studies with the last members of the old guard, all of whom are now long since retired or passed on "to the greater life." Most other relatively conservative students were not so lucky. And that was twenty years ago.
Why in the world should people who want to defend the humanities write as if this were not a reality? Why should we pretend that a student who takes a literature course at the majority of secular colleges (and even some Christian colleges) can be sure of learning worthwhile content when that is, at best, a gamble with a risk of big losses?
Authors who plaintively call upon conservatives not to "trash the liberal arts" are writing as if from within a time warp, as if what conservatives (and parents) are "trashing" is the Columbia University Great Books course circa 1955!
Now, I admit, this does all get bound up with the age-old question of whether one goes to college to get a credential for a job or not. And I admit that I am not neutral on that and that I am appalled at the level of student debt that young people take on. I would not advise a student to accept a large school debt even if he were getting a 1955-era Great Books course. And I would pragmatically advise such a student to consider what he intends to do after graduation and what his long-term plans are, in terms of a job or career. Not everyone should intend to go on to graduate school, especially not in the humanities, given the job market. Moreover, we have too few marriages taking place these days and too few young people who are thinking in terms of marriage and families.
So, yes, there is more to all of this than just postmodernism, and in the present socioeconomic milieu I'm going to be asking some tough questions about studying the humanities even when they are done right. (Let it be said here and now that I wouldn't encourage anybody to go deeply into school debt for a STEM degree, either!)
But a fortiori it is the rankest irresponsible insanity to encourage young people in lofty words to go off and "learn to learn" by studying the humanities when we know darned good and sure that most of them are going to learn utter baloney and have their brains turned inside out by such a study. Why pretend? Why send someone to major in something that will give him "post-colonial studies" (for example) as great depth, that will substitute ignorance, activism, and anachronism for whatever innate ability he previously had to read works of the past on their own terms? It would be far, far better not to take an official course and just to read the works themselves than to learn to read them badly. A course in Shakespeare that "does readings" from the perspective of post-colonial theory, queer theory, or any other faddish -ism is negative value. Become a plumber instead and read Hamlet in your spare time using Spark Notes to understand the tough parts.
Moreover, at the risk of ruffling feathers, I will say that even less radical "continental" approaches to a field like philosophy are of dubious value, and unfortunately some schools, in their dislike of analytic philosophy, have veered in that direction even when they do not embrace full-bore postmodernism. So it behooves the prospective humanities student to be wary even when considering a school with a reputation for upholding tradition or being politically and/or religiously conservative.
Another passing thought: It is a tad insulting to engineering majors (for example) to imply that they need to learn to learn by taking courses from humanities professors. Ideally, engineering courses and mathematics courses will also help students "learn to learn." That is not to denigrate the unique contribution of the humanities, well taught; it is simply to say that the cliche "learning how to learn" is not the best way to summarize that contribution.
The wars between the disciplines will probably never cease entirely, even with good will and good scholarship on all sides. I certainly have no simple suggestions for bringing those wars to an end. And the present pressure of economic factors is causing a radical re-evaluation of the assumption that all students should go to college, which is exacerbating the competition among disciplines. The present atmosphere is understandably making all the colleges whose very existence depends on more than trades and school-to-job ratios feel nervous and defensive, since some of them may literally not survive at all. That Cardinal Newmanesque defenses of the Idea of a University should crop up in the ensuing discussions is inevitable and not entirely pointless, despite the fact that in Newman's time nobody expected everybody to go to University. Nor was the university expected to provide the vast number of jobs for academics that it is now expected to provide. We cannot really expect even legitimate defenses of the value of the liberal arts to be sufficient to defend the sheer quantity of Western GDP that is currently poured into courses that bear the humanities label.
A frank discussion of all of these factors and of the future of higher education is necessary, and there is nowhere better for it to take place than among cultural, educational, religious, and political conservatives who are willing to speak openly of the trahison des clercs of the past decades. If such a discussion doesn't make a snappy op-ed for a major news outlet, no problem.