Should STEM Become STEAM?

STEM_logoDo we really need more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) majors and graduates? Yes and no according to an op-ed by Loretta Jackson-Hayes, associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College. She contends that what we really need is STEM grads with liberal arts training. She gives examples of people from Leonardo da Vinci, to Steve Jobs to Carly Fiorina, who combined scientific or technical excellence with training in the liberal arts.

In addition to relatively standard arguments about the value of the ability to develop technology that is aesthetically pleasing and to communicate scientific knowledge with verbal and written clarity, she also equates the training of people in STEM fields to that of artists. STEM training is not simply about the transfer of knowledge. It is about apprenticeship, similar to an apprentice working with a master artist or music teacher. Someone who has been an artistic apprentice may make a much better teacher and mentor.

Most telling in this article and one of the main arguments often raised for the liberal arts is that they remind us of the big picture of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Jackson-Hayes argues this in terms of employability, that this kind of training makes people more nimble thinkers and whole people. I think that, while true, this is unfortunate because it concedes that the most important function of the university is job-training, and that the ultimate achievement in life is employment.

More troubling to me is the implication of the emphasis on STEM that not only do schools and universities exist to serve our high tech economy, but also that the human beings who are enrolled in these institutions also exist as cogs in our high technology machine. For this reason, I wonder if one of the most dangerous things one can do for those headed into these fields is expose them to a liberal education. A liberal education leads us to question the reasons for and purpose of and value in the things we do.

I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons dystopian literature holds such a fascination for young adults is this intuition that giving ourselves heart and soul to what Neil Postman called the technopoly can end very badly for the humans all this technology supposedly serves. For example, we are increasingly networked–our computers, phones, banking and even our cars–and basically all of us should assume we are hacked and we live under the constant cloud of credit card fraud and identity theft. We have done all this because we could, but without asking bigger questions of whether this is really a good thing and without consider whether having our lives so open to the world makes sense given human nature. Those are the inconvenient questions literature and philosophy and history and religious studies help us explore.

My own hope is that those in higher education will stop justifying their existence merely in terms of preparing people for jobs. Jobs are only a part of a whole life, necessary but not all. Many jobs aren’t simply to help other people do their jobs. So much of our commerce, our research, and other endeavors focus around the non-work parts of our lives: our spirituality, our health, our life in communities, our enjoyment of the arts and entertainment, our pursuits of justice and the good society. STEM may aid us in these endeavors but should never dictate what we do and why we do it in these realms. For that we need something more…

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