School Climate & Safety Opinion

Understand STEM’s Potential to Include Humanities and the Arts

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 25, 2016 4 min read
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There were two recent articles about STEM, one, in the New York Times, A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding by Patricia Cohen and, the other, in the Washington Post, entitled, Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous by Fareed Zakaria. Both attracted our attention. This won’t surprise our regular followers. Both articles were, of course, well written. But both uncovered misunderstandings that feed the opposition to STEM when defined as a focus on the elevation of science, technology, engineering, and math. To redefine the purpose of elementary and secondary education as solely to prepare graduates for work in STEM fields is a troubling on many fronts. Career readiness... and the value of an educated workforce for our economy... is one goal for public education, but not the only one.

Establishing a competition within education between the arts and humanities and the STEM subjects serves no one well and creates unintended consequences also. Can we consider that our system built around separation and subject areas and certification and courses is too fractured to represent how the world really functions? Without STEM for all students, the chasm between students will be widened as those who are naturally or socially inclined are drawn to the four subjects, as others are deemed less interested and left to either do poorly, or simply become disengaged. This is not a desirable outcome.

This bears repeating. STEM does not need to be the elevation of four subjects over others. More holistically, it is the opportunity to redesign education to be inclusive of all subjects and all students. This is an aspiration that may have previously existed but, now, STEM awareness is creating a vision and generating a conversation about it. What we have learned in these past 50 years? We know the importance of engaging students and much more about how thinking and learning takes place. We are increasingly leading learning environments where technology is a way of life. Educators communicate with professionals from all over the world, and incorporate the evidence that innovative 21st century programs include all subjects and are project based.

We have already presented a different view from Fareed Zakaria’s, who has been outspoken about defending the liberal arts in our September 22, 2015 EdWeek Commentary, STEM Should Broaden, Not Narrow the Curriculum. And herefrom The STEM Shift:

We see STEM as a shift in the philosophical framework for teaching and learning. The shift leaves behind a subject-based, rigidly scheduled, unintegrated system to become one that is defined by subject integration, project-based learning, relevancy for the lives of children, and structural flexibility (Myers & Berkowicz p. xv).

Ethics are learned in the humanities as are vision and creativity. Art is essential. In Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Redefining Contemporary Art, a landmark book by Arthur I. Miller, he writes

Artsci, the new movement I’ve been looking at, is more extreme yet. Not only is it science- and technology-influenced, as was Cubism, but its artists use scientific and technological media, whereas the Cubists used only their interpretations of the new ideas. Today’s artists often work together with scientists, which the Cubists never did-nor, for that matter, did any major artist until the second half of the twentieth century. Their work may even directly affect the work of scientists. To quote Peter Weibel’s words yet again, “Today art is an offspring of science and technology.” (p. 341)

Look to the Renaissance. Without public education a civilization flourished in the arts as well as the sciences...not one or the other.

Renaissance, literally “rebirth,” the period in European civilization immediately following the Middle Ages and conventionally held to have been characterized by a surge of interest in Classical scholarship and values. The Renaissance also witnessed the discovery and exploration of new continents, the substitution of the Copernican for the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, the decline of the feudal system and the growth of commerce, and the invention or application of such potentially powerful innovations as paper, printing, the mariner’s compass, and gunpowder. (Britannica.com)

Let’s not contribute to decline and stagnation by ignoring the value of the humanities, the arts, or the sciences. But, let us learn from the past and consider that the pinnacles of civilization flourishing drew knowledge from across fields. We can create schools where this happens daily, where we prepare all students and connect learning in authentic and applied ways in a new design for teaching and learning. Our responsibility as educational leaders is to inform the process by acknowledging that the attention given to STEM offers us a radical opening in our approach. It is one that can be designed on the local level, by each community, as needs and talents emerge. Shifting into a 21st century model is appropriately an inclusive shift for all students, leaving no subject behind.

Miller, A.I. (2014). Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.
Myers, A. & Berkowicz, J (2015). The STEM Shift: A Guide for School Leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

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