I find the Times editorial, “Innovative arts” (Nov. 14), thoughtful and relevant but limited in an ironic fashion.
The editorial reviews the current popularity and influence of STEM curriculums, an attempt to “rejuvenate academic vigor” in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM is a national initiative aimed at “reclaiming the top global educational positions in math and science.” By doing so, we are to infer, America would regain its economic health and thus be able to, in that most ubiquitous of imperatives, “compete in the new global economy”.
The editorial praises the effort to improve our kids’ technical skills, but adds that Representatives Sarah Peake and Kay Khan believe the STEM curriculums fall short because they overlook the arts, a means by which children can develop their ability to innovate, a necessary skill if they are to (you guessed it) compete in the new global economy. Their solution is STEAM, an enhanced version of STEM and a wonderful new acronym.
I fully endorse this proposal since innovation and the arts are indeed necessary for human progress, but I can’t help but smile at the unintended irony. The editorial argues that “all the preexisting (scientific) knowledge will do mankind little good without the ability to look at that same information in a new and innovative manner.” No argument there. But isn’t it also true that mankind needs to view all new information through the lens of past human achievement, the accepted wisdom of philosophers and writers, a sensitivity to and understanding of how different cultures on the planet might respond to the new information? These vital human skills are developed through education in the humanities: literature, history, foreign languages, philosophy and ethics, and comparative religions. Isn’t it still a good thing to have graduates who can think on their feet, speak forcefully and write clearly in standard English, recognize when they and others are locked into fallacies or ideological thought patterns? I think so. We learn these skills through the humanities.
Why do Representatives Peake and Khan bring us so close to an exciting vision of a thorough education for all citizens and leave out this last necessity, the civilizing influence of the humanities? It could be because it makes for a bad acronym. STEAHM? STEHAM? HMEATS? What I suspect, though, is the discovery of the irony that by adding the humanities we would be back to the exact same curriculum we have been teaching for a century or more. The only difference, I suppose, is that we’d be teaching it with “rejuvenated academic vigor”.
A true liberal arts education (HMEATS) is far more important than many parents, students, and politicians realize. With apologies to parents and students frustrated by graduates’ failure to become gainfully employed enough to pay off college loans, I’d like to suggest that we stop equating education and income. I refuse the assumption that 4th grade teachers and high school chemistry or English teachers are responsible for America’s flagging economy and graduates’ inability to find a job. And I reject the current wisdom that universities ought to shape their curriculums to make their graduates more employable.
I’d also like corporations to stop telling educators what and how to teach so that they can have a “better prepared workforce”. Why can’t corporations train their own workforces? If a corporation cannot find a way to utilize the intellect and character of truly well-educated young person, then perhaps they ought to question their mission.
Our current preoccupation with testing and the quantitative achievement of our students and schools, and our assumption that a quality education ought to result in personal prosperity, has caused us to overlook our primary task: educating citizens who are capable of rational thought, ethical conduct, and civic engagement. Our fixation on the notion that we are “educating students to compete in the new global economy” is reducing education to little more than the act of manufacturing future producers and consumers. Successful democracy demands more than affluent consumers. It requires virtuous citizens, both in mind and character, capable of governing themselves.