In order for America to remain competitive–or more accurately, to regain our competitive edge–we need to focus on education. Specifically, we are told we need to focus on STEM education–Sience, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Prophets (as well as charlatans) of growth, economic development, and good public policy from the White House to the school-house to the work-house tout the importance of STEM education to the nation’s future. These advocates of a new American exceptionalism see a future tied to the steady progress of science, the power of innovative new technologies, the efficiencies of enlightened engineering and an understanding gained through the judicious application of mathematical principles to an ever-increasing cauldron of useful data. In large part, they are correct. Our educational system is hopelessly out of date, we are not educating students for the present let alone for a successful, self-directed future. STEM education recognizes the need to keep up with new discoveries and changing technology, to build an understanding of the hardware Unfortunately, this vision of the future comes up wanting in some important ways, with STEM education reifying false partitions between the “serious” disciplines of science and mathematics, and the more “liberal” and “fine” arts–the very areas that are spurring new innovations that will shape our future.
A growing chorus of voices, however, is not so much eschewing the call for STEM education as it is questioning the completeness, and yes even the wisdom, of an educational paradigm that neglects the arts. This chorus calls for reconsidering the STEM movement, to develop a more complete STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Art) paradigm of education. The reasoning goes that without arts education, future workers will lack necessary creative and collaborative skills that are increasingly important. John Tarnoff’s recent piece in the Huffington Post does a good job making the argument that many of the new jobs created by the technology boom are in fact in creative areas. “Companies want workers who can brainstorm, problem-solve, collaborate creatively and contribute/communicate new ideas,” Tarnoff notes. And those workers are not always easy to find. There is, therefore, a basic economic argument for creating systems and policies that encourage STEAM education.
But is an economic argument the only way to justify STEAM focused education? I won’t get into a long discussion on the nature of education (publicly funded education in particular), or ask whether we shouldn’t be considering factors beyond worker training when developing goals and drafting policy– educating an informed and able citizenry for example, or promoting democratic ideals and ethics. No, what I’m talking about is a more basic principle, but one that continues to be demonstrated as we evolve socially, culturally, and technologically. I call it the principle of connections.
We too often divorce the “hard science” disciplines from the arts (and here I include the liberal arts), just as we often assume that “nature” and “technology” (or even industry) are mutually exclusive, perhaps even conflicting ideas. Throughout history, however, such dichotomies have been consistently discredited. It is equally as wrong to assume that the engineer or scientist lacks creative capacity as it is to write off the observational, technical and analytic skills of the artist or philosopher. From Leonardo da Vinci to E.O. Wilson our greatest scientific thinkers have also often displayed immense artistic talent, each grounded in their abilities to observe, analyze, document and most of all imagine. In fact scientists and engineers are among the most ardent advocates for STEAM over STEM thinking.
There is one more connection, I’d like to add to this discussion, though. That is making, or the manual arts (would that be STEAMM education?). Shop classes, home economics and all forms of manual learning (what we might call labor) continue to be stripped from our school curricula in order to make room for more reading, writing, science and math. From a purely economic standpoint this makes little sense, especially in light of the Obama administration’s focus on bringing manufacturing strength back to the American economy. From an educational standpoint, though, it’s nothing short of disastrous. Instead of stripping manual arts from the curriculum we would do better to more thoroughly integrate them into every aspect of learning. Math, science, art and all the rest would likely benefit from providing hands-on experiential opportunities for students to learn. Take students out of the classroom and away from the textbooks and computer screens for a significant part of each day and lets see if achievement (not to mention satisfaction) doesn’t increase.