Sunday, December 7, 2014

Blowing Off Some STEM

Am I the only one feeling a little tired of the obsessive focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) not just in our educational circles, but in American culture overall?
I know these things go in cycles, but I feel like this trend has been dominating the discourse since the Cold War, with only occasional, brief time-outs to swing the other way (or, more often, to provide political cover that essentially changes nothing).  And now the movement has this shiny “STEM” branding that makes us think it’s an original development, when really it’s just the same old.
Yes, of course science and math and engineering and all that are important.  No one would suggest otherwise.  Kids need instruction in and exposure to all appropriate subject areas.
But no one ever suggests that every kid needs to come out of high school a poet.  Why does it feel that, on the contrary, we’re being told that every kid has to come out of high school an engineer?
Newsflash: some—lots of—kids’ brains don’t work well in the STEM area.  Just as we’ve always acknowledged that they don’t all work well in the lit-n-arts area.
You may say it’s not an issue—that I’m bemoaning a conflict without belligerents.
But when, exactly, in the past hundred years, have the STEM subjects  been at risk of disappearing in favor of literature, grammar, foreign languages, and the arts?
It is these latter subjects that are under constant threat of being cut, defunded, excised, and generally overwhelmed by the “hard stuff.”  Sounds like a conflict to me.

And while I appreciate the burgeoning “STEAM” variant that shoe-horns an “A” for “arts” in there, it doesn’t quite cut it for me.  For those who are sincerely trying to push this alternative, it seems like their efforts are still somewhat ghettoized, while when more “venerable” and entrenched education organizations adopt it, it feels like lip service.  It’s hard to take STEAM seriously as a force when STEM is still entrenched in the way the government discusses education and even immigration policy.
It’s explicitly science and technology, after all, that are enjoying a surge in high-visibility promotional campaigns.  I can’t turn on the TV without being reminded that “we’re not popular...but we know how computers work,” meaning that all those brainless bullies “will work for us someday.”  Revenge of the nerds via STEM!  How charming.

Then there are the big gas companies partnering with media conglomerates to turn sports into an opportunity for on-the-fly scientific analysis that would make NASA blush.  (Just once I’d like to see a commercial featuring a high school football player reflecting on the ways his chosen sport reveal the hidden nature of the human condition in the clash of antagonistic forces... )   I guess there’s always a chance that some of the kids Chevron is trying to inculcate here might end up pioneering ways to fight climate change, but that’s probably not high on any curricula they’re interested in designing.

The Connect-a-Million-Minds project is based entirely on this premise that sports and STEM go together.  Maybe I spoke too soon about  that nerd revenge.  Now I’m starting to feel like efforts are underway to cleanse all geeks from America’s shores--replace the STEMmy ones with jocks, reducing every engineering problem to “how to get the ball through the goal,”  and just ignore and defund the artsy ones out of existence.

And thus a great American dream for which the red-blooded nation has been striving since the 1950s will finally be accomplished.

I’m exaggerating, of course.  A little.  The point is, STEM is deeply entrenched in the planning process of American education policy, with curricula shaped to its needs, big-time corporate conglomerates for sponsors, and a propaganda arm as wide and bristly as Stalin’s accursed mustache.  STEM will be here to stay, while the vestigial appendage of the arts continues to wither, one French program and lit magazine and photography club at a time.

So, as in so much else, it should be the librarian’s task to pick up the slack.  Let us not give in to the drumbeat of all-consuming STEM.  Let’s fill our libraries with books, materials, and marketing for all things literary and artistic.  And not just for the kids—for the adults, too…you know, those larger, slightly lumbering things we insist we want to aid with “lifelong learning”?  For that matter, lifelong learning need not be limited to computer training.  That is, obviously, just as important for adults as for kids, if not more so.  But what about creative writing?  What about pottery?  What about poetry?  What about dance?
All kidding aside, the kids—and adults—whose brains work in the STEM mode will be very important to the future of our society.  They will be the computer engineers, the architects, the urban planners, the doctors, and the mathematicians and scientists charting unheard-of new discoveries.
But where will we be if we neglect the kids (and adults!) whose talents and temperaments lie in the arts?  These are the people who will be making the world a beautiful place.  They will be the people helping us laugh in troubled times.  They will be, like Dickens and Steinbeck and Morrison before them, the cartographers charting the moral landscape of our society.
It may be hard to pin a future value to that.  But look around the stacks of your library and tell me you can’t estimate the value they’ve had every day up to now.  Tell me you don’t think we should be fostering those skills and talents and temperaments just as ferociously as the STEMmy kids’.

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