Vermont’s motto madness shows science education is not enough

Vermont's state flag.

Vermont’s state flag.

Something happened the other day in Vermont that reminded me of the saying, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

After an eighth-grade student wrote to a state legislator to propose Vermont adopt a Latin motto and the proposal went forward, some less-than-knowledgeable residents got really angry. There was, as Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning said, a “vitriolic verbal assault from those who don’t know the difference between the Classics and illegal immigrants from South America.”

Perhaps that confusion seems unlikely, but here is what two among many wrote. One woman asked, “I thought Vermont was American not Latin? Does (sic) any Latin places have American mottos?” A man offered, “Just when I felt our represenatives (sic) could not possibly get any dumber, they come up with this…get real… this is the USA, not some Moslim (sic) or Mexican country.”

Lack of knowledge is, of course, associated with many different issues and ideologies. You, undoubtedly, have your own list.

Maine already has a Latin motto — Dirigo — so we won’t have any similar uproar.

But we do have to really think about what we want our higher education system to look like.

There has been a considerable emphasis on promoting education and training in science and technology, both through our colleges and community colleges. Certainly those are worthwhile areas of study, and they are important to Maine’s economic future.

But it is also important to provide education in the social sciences and humanities. If those Vermonters knew something about the languages, geography and history, they wouldn’t have looked so very foolish.

It’s past time to recognize that students graduating with degrees outside of engineering and the physical and biological sciences find jobs, build careers, and gain from their humanities and social science knowledge.

Before he graduated, a student of mine, a UMaine senior with a degree in International Relations and German got a job with an international corporation who wanted an employee who understood the world and had language skills. Another went from working on a campaign to a position as a congressional aide, then to law school and a career in public interest law. Still another quickly snagged a position with a nonprofit focused on health education and has been promoted many times.

We miss these and many other success stories perhaps because our tendency is to look at job postings that require specific degrees and, since humanities and social sciences aren’t listed, to then think that those fields don’t provide valuable training and education. People pursuing these degrees should do some sort of internship, but we shouldn’t overlook how their substantive knowledge and critical thinking, writing and analytical skills are valued by employers.

Given this, plans for the University of Maine System campuses should not give short shrift to the humanities and social sciences.

Perhaps the emphasis on sciences led to the proposal that the University of Maine at Machias (UMM) should be the state’s educational center for marine studies rather than a fascinating emphasis UMM had identified as its strength, environmental humanities and liberal arts.

It’s hard to know why else UMM would have that role.

As marine biologist Peter Jumars pointed out last week in a BDN OpEd, the University of Maine at Machias accounted for just 2 percent of the University of Maine System’s undergraduate teaching in marine sciences, compared to 79 percent by the University of Maine. Jumars, a professor of Marine Sciences at UMaine, noted that UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences brings in $10 million a year in grant funding and includes 125 employees, many supported by research grants that serve the state’s marine products sector.

There are fewer Ph.D.-holding professors at UMM altogether than solely in UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences.

If one wanted UMM to truly become the state’s center for marine sciences, more than 100 people from UMaine would have to be relocated, with new facilities built to house them and their labs. That would be costly and counterproductive. Faculty members with doctorates are part of a national job market. Many would leave the state, taking their grant dollars with them.

As higher learning in Maine undergoes change, we must appreciate the fine programs and highly talented, well-trained scholars from many fields who advance knowledge and turn ignorance into education.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.