Since I believe everything exists at a point on a swinging pendulum — and since that belief keeps my knee from jerking unduly at things like trends, fads, and the news — I don’t get terribly lathered up over flashes in the educational pan (or any other pan). Case in point: Programs that focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
I was never convinced STEM was a good idea, concentrating as it does on attenuated (linear) thinking, as opposed to unconditional (conceptual) thinking. That perspective is reflected in a piece from Education Week — “There’s Something Missing From STEM Learning” — that’s about as direct as you can get in pointing out the shortcomings of STEM:
What schools must stop doing is teaching the puzzle pieces and then never letting students put the puzzle together. Through arts integration, students are finally discovering and creating their own solutions, rather than waiting for the teacher to tell them how to arrive at an answer.
The Other Side of the Brain
Along the way, someone decided it might not be a good idea to let the right side of so many brains lie fallow. At that point, folks introduced STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) into some curricula, curious, as they undoubtedly were, to see what would happen if students were enabled and encouraged to see the world as something other than a series of straight lines or predetermined conclusions. Lo and behold — “STEM vs. STEAM: Why One Letter Matters”:
A STEAM education approach actually translated into a more accurate pathway to college … confirmed that arts students were more likely to apply to more colleges than non-arts students, 21 percent more likely to attend a postsecondary institution than non-arts students, just as likely to pursue STEM majors as non-arts students, and just as likely to receive scholarships as their non-arts peers.
Hello! If we haven’t become completely immune to wake-up calls, that one should have thrown us out of bed and clear across the room.
Accordingly, given the empirical evidence that abstract thinking improves overall cognition, even in the most linear of sciences, I have a characteristically modest suggestion: Let’s change the words that comprise the acronym, STEM, to these, each of which includes a branch of philosophy:
- Sense: The German philosopher, Gottlob Frege, invented sense in 1892. Following his premise that a singular term may have multiple meanings, Frege drew a distinction between sense and reference and published it in a paper he cleverly entitled, Sense and Reference, from which this excerpt is derived: “A man whose wife sends him to the grocery store (Lebensmittelmarkt) may procure a loaf of whole-grain rye (Vollkornbrot) when, in fact, she actually wanted sunflower-seed bread (Sonnenblumenbrot). From the ambiguity (Mehrdeutigkeit) between the sense and the reference, we can clearly see there’s was no way the poor schlemiel (Schlemiel) could keep from getting his ass (der Hintern) reamed.”
- Teleology: Deriving from the Greek telos (end) and logos (reason), Plato and Aristotle created this philosophy to explain why Socrates was put to death for criticizing democracy and exceeding the posted speed limit. Teleology is alternately characterized as final causality. But that characterization was applied only after Socrates drank the hemlock. The best-known conceptualization of teleology was delivered by Aristotle in his famous eulogy at the funeral of Plato. Having converted from Platonism to empiricism the day after Plato died, Aristotle said, “A full explanation of anything must consider its final cause. And while Socrates and Plato died of different causes, they’re both dead. That’s pretty final.”
- Epistemology: This philosophy, derived from the Greek ἐπιστήμη (knowledge) and λόγος (logical discourse), is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As such, it contemplates questions such as: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? As the study of justified belief, epistemology aims to answer questions such as: Was Socrates really speeding? Was he caught on radar? Was there a police report? Were there any witnesses? Did he have any prior infractions? Did Plato and Aristotle have anything to hide that would have led them to abstain from defending Socrates? How do we know? Can we justify believing any of it?
- Meaning: This philosophy entails the nature and definition of meaning under five broad theories: (1) Correspondence theory holds that meaning must accord with true beliefs and statements. (2) Coherence theory contends that assessments of meaning and truth can be ascribed to propositions only according to their coherence. (3) Constructivist theory holds that meaning and truth are constructed socially and shaped through power struggles. (4) Consensus theory posits that meaning and truth are a consensus of a specified group. (5) Pragmatic theory contends that meaning and truth are confirmed by the results of putting a concept into practice. Politicians favor 3 and 4 — 1, 2, and 5 not so much.
If you read what I wrote above and wondered, “What in the hell is this fool on about?” you’ve proved my point. Kidding and facetiousness aside, STEM fails us if it doesn’t cause us to think critically, to question — everything — and to look beyond convention, formula, and any popular or widely accepted narrative.
That’s why any curriculum that doesn’t include the Arts and the Humanities is necessarily incomplete.
A generation of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians will serve us well — until we encounter problems that can’t be solved by science, technology, engineering, and math.
If nature’s most harmonious state is balance, we need a balance of specialists and generalists, of left-brain and right-brain thinkers, of practice and theory, of reality and imagination, of rote and creativity.
We won’t grow that kind of balance from a single STEM.