A Full Head of STEM

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.

Try This

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.

No Joke

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.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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    • Thank you, Mac. If enough of us swim against that stream, we just might reverse its course.

      Your piece on teleology is brilliant. You had me here: “They need learning that embraces possibilities rather than single answers.” And you iced my interest with community, commencement, contribution, and creation. (“How have we increased their capacity for curiosity, connection, and healthy skepticism?”)

      I very much look forward to creating with you.

  1. Mark — I don’t think all schools that provide a STEM curricula can be painted with Ed Week’s broad brush: “What schools must stop doing is teaching the puzzle pieces and then never letting students put the puzzle together.” The fact is, some schools / teachers do STEM better than others – some actually do begin to put the puzzle pieces together.

    But merely adding the “A” won’t guarantee success for those that don’t. Like any instruction and learning, there’s the good and there’s the bad. And unfortunately, Ms Riley’s argument suffers from the same malaise that other education reforms suffer: it’s playing around the edges. Just add an “A” and all will be right with instruction and learning. I could easily make the case for more instruction in history. One only has to read the reader comments in the following article to know that we’ve got trouble right here in river city. Our historical literacy is really one of illiteracy – and we’re in a period of history right now, today, where we can ill afford to be historically stupid. As a former high school history teacher, I could easily make the case for more “H” and its relative “G.” (Yes, “government.”)

    But that case would also only be playing around the edges, and we have to stop playing around the edges of ed reform. Actually, we should all be “lathered up” at the educational flashes-in-the-pan trends, fads, panaceas wrapped in the guise of “school improvement.” The bottom line is that we’re not in agreement about what we want for our kids when they walk across the stage to get their high school diploma (much less their college diploma).

    I was introduced recently to someone who makes the succinct case for real school reform, and I can’t wait to interview him on Getting Unstuck. In the meantime, I’m going to dig into his book, WHAT SCHOOLS COULD BE.

    As Yoda might say, “Another thought-provoking article, you write.”

    • Jeff, you probably know I don’t disagree with you in any way. I could be wrong (always a VERY real possibility), but I’d categorize History under Liberal Arts. (“We’re in a period of history right now, today, where we can ill afford to be historically stupid.” Amen to that.)

      I’m going to put What Schools Should Be on my reading list. Thank you for that. Thank you for your enlightened and enlightening comments here. And thank you, of course and as always, for your friendship.

    • Thanks, Mark. As I read over my initial response, I may have come across as being overly strident. Apologies. But after laboring in the field of education for almost 50 years now, I’m pretty passionate about the whole reform issue. We touch on it in our forthcoming book.

    • Thank you, Jeff. No apologies are necessary, nor can I imagine the gentleman I know you to be needing to apologize. I respect your experience, your passion, your perspective, and your forthrightness. I very much look forward to buying your book.

      Thank you.

  2. Mark, as a homeschooler of 4 and the emphasis I see around me with STEM, it is a pleasure to read your article. Sharing this with my peeps in the world of “Self-Education.” Loved how you brought in the ancient dead Greek guys to drive the points home. A favorite topic of mind, BTW. Thank you for writing!

    • Thank you, Janine. You just made my day. And I was already having a good day.

      It’s not lost on me that the only reason I was able to write that piece and to include the references I did is that I had a Liberal Arts education.

      I’m very grateful for your comments and for your sharing the article.