Why I Don’t Want to Get STEAMed

STEM education is all the rage: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the collection of disciplines regarded as the most desirable, the most likely to lead to financial success for individuals and economic growth for nations, the obsession of universities and policy makers alike.

I don’t know who was the first to consider the possibility of making a concession to the older and richer tradition of liberal-arts education in the United States, but I’ve also come across the acronym, STEAM, in which the ‘A’ stands for Arts.

That’s nice.

It’s a pity irony is so hard to convey in print.

The truth of the matter is that I find the acronym STEAM to be offensive on at least three counts:

  1. It distills the broad and rich traditions of human inquiry into meaning and value, legitimacy and justice, structure and power and freedom, into a single, misleading term – “Arts” – for the sake of having a nice acronym.
  2. It casts those broad and rich traditions of human inquiry as a mere afterthought adjunct to what increasingly is taken to be the real purpose of education, which is to prepare STEM professionals to make money and to make the nation economically competitive.
  3. It reflects a kind of historical and linguistic ignorance, as the Greek term often translated as “art” is . . . techne.

More and more, my own thought regarding STEM is to take it as a metaphor: these disciplines are a stem of a much larger and older tree, one subset of human enterprises pursued for human purposes and aimed at securing human values.

There are also human enterprises aimed at identifying and connecting and critiquing and revising those purposes and values, enterprises that are thus closer to the roots of the tree. You know, like philosophy and history and literature and . . .

In other words, rather than smuggling some remnant of the humanities into STEM, why not recast STEM disciplines as outward expressions of deeper humanistic pursuits?

(Credit where it’s due: I’ve been thinking all of this for some time, but it is coming to a point as I read Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit, in which she contrasts the “economic growth paradigm” in higher education with the “human development paradigm.”)

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