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Education Opinion

STEM Obsession Shortchanges Students

By Walt Gardner — December 17, 2014 2 min read
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Graduating students who understand science, technology, engineering and math is essential. But in our obsession with achieving this goal, we have forgotten the importance of other subjects (“Is the U.S. Focusing Too Much on STEM?The Atlantic, Dec. 3). I’m referring now to art and music, which unfortunately are considered frills whenever budgets are tight.

That kind of thinking does a terrible disservice to students whose interests and talents lie in these two fields. Many young people recognize early in their lives that drawing or singing or playing an instrument is what they love more than anything else (“Understanding the Mind of a Young Artist,” Education Week, Dec. 2). Whether it is an innate gift or an acquired predilection really is beside the point. What is most important is to recognize that by treating art and music as dispensable, we deprive these students of a reason for attending school. For example, California has a dropout rate of more than 40 percent. I’ll bet one of the reasons is that many students cannot connect with their courses.

I’m not arguing for the creation in this country of El Sistema, Venezuela’s music-education program, because I think it is an unrealistic goal and because even El Sistema is highly controversial, as a new book by Geoffrey Baker attests (“El Sistema founder, Gustavo Dudamel are targets of scathing new book,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 7). Instead, I’m advocating giving music and art their proper places in the curriculum.

When I was teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I had a student who struggled to write a coherent 300-word essay. One day before class began, I happened to notice that she always carried a sketch pad. I asked her if I could see what she was drawing. I know little about art, but it was apparent even to me that the student was talented. In those days before the accountability movement began, the LAUSD offered classes in art and music. As a result, students who were interested received formal instruction. Near the end of my career when budgets were slashed, these courses were cut back or eliminated.

So much as been written about STEM that we prevent students from receiving a well-rounded education. STEM is not, and can never be, the sum and substance of such an education. I don’t know what happened to the student with the sketch pad, but I’ll bet that she still finds more satisfaction and gratification from her drawing than she would from STEM.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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