Where Are the Roots and Branches?
Where Are the Roots and Branches?
March 3, 2014
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is the latest shibboleth in American education. It is making the covers of magazines, showing up in Presidential messages, and seeping into school districts all over the nation. It is hailed as the one educational reform that will bring us back to being the unquestioned leader in the sciences. Sponsors and spearheads of STEM education include[*] Pearson, Houghton Mifflin, BP, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Monsanto, Cargill, Halliburton, Raytheon, Bechtel, GE, Visa, MasterCard, J.P. Morgan Chase, Aetna, Procter and Gamble, and Rothschild Group. The U.S. government, under the executive branch, has started a Committee on STEM Education in 2011. With so much to accelerate and sustain it, the success of STEM education to date is not too surprising.
Einstein played the violin
All knowledge was discovered or created by the human mind. There are no detached, single facts. Knowledge, even at the extreme of information theory, exists in a system. Perhaps the most explicit historical example of the unity of the branches of knowledge is Leonardo da Vinci. His tendency to be a polymath was not due to some happenstance series of eclectic obsessions; rather, one branch of curiosity inevitably grew from another. Music, mechanics, biology, botany, hydrology, art, optics, etc., all dynamically interacted with each other in a progressive network of discovery. Einstein, for that matter, played the violin—not as some tangential hobby for mere amusement, but as an integrated source of inspiration.
Take any given topic of specialized study, pursue it to its origins (roots) and extremities (fruits), and it will be seen that the specialization explodes into virtually every branch of knowledge. Furthermore, it is the journeys into the other branches that often give the keenest insights into the topic at hand. Kepler has shown this in his use of musical harmony as it relates to astronomy. The STEM system, with its single-shot focus, precludes a da Vinci or Kepler or Einstein from existing.
STEM as specialization
In the stages of one’s lifetime, the appropriate period for devotion to a specialized study is when a broad and deep foundation has already been laid in the liberal arts. This is why, traditionally, the act of choosing an academic major has been reserved for adulthood, after a student has undergone a thorough immersion in a rich and diverse general education. The STEM focus in education, it seems to me, prematurely loads the burden of specialization[†] onto adolescent minds, obfuscating the light of other subjects. Creativity and genius grow better in a fertile ecosystem (a system that allows all the conditions for growth). If we wish to have the best and brightest of future scientists and engineers, we cannot churn them out as if from a factory. They must be cultivated.
A plant grows healthily when a multitude of factors are concentrated by the organizing system of the plant to produce living functions of growth, sustenance, and reproduction. If we take the student to be the plant, STEM education limits the multitude of growth factors down to four (with a trickling of some others), in which case the name STEM betrays itself: the stem of a plant is dead without its roots, and lacks beauty and fructification without its branches. Without due emphasis on the arts and humanities, an education cannot produce much more than a stem—a midsection, a mere part, an unknowing cog designed to serve a larger system.
Such human cogs were the main products of the Soviet education system, especially after the 1958 reform. For the Soviets, utilitarianism was key[‡], and whatever educational practices they deemed would produce the precisely required amount of scientists, engineers, agricultural specialists, and laborers, were considered the best practices. In the USSR, secondary education was centered around admission to the post-secondary tekhnikum, an engineering training academy in which every student was conditioned to desire acceptance. With STEM, the tekhnikum is brought down to the grade school level; the cold, narrow specialization curriculum of the Soviets is offered to American students as a guarantee of a stable future[§].
In all fairness, the shift to STEM education will probably have a positive effect on the development of the productive capacity of the United States. If used wisely in a limited manner—and in a way that does not compromise individual freedom—STEM will provide a stronger foundation to America’s workforce and offer opportunities to citizens who would be otherwise disadvantaged. The problem with the STEM approach arises if it is seen as a blanket reform to general education. A full-scale STEM system would only benefit in the short term. The long term of a full-scale STEM would see a nation stagnating in its creative potential—a nation perhaps strong in its technological capability, but staggering in its tendency toward innovation and discovery. A stronger focus in the STEM subjects could be a great boon to education, as long as it is not at the expense of those other branches of study that have historically been such an integral part in the cultivation of genius.
[*] Listed on stemconnector.org
[†] STEM advocates often claim that the arts and humanities are not diminished in a STEM setting. I have yet to find, however, any proof of this claim.
[‡] In the early Soviet system, Dewey’s “progressive” educational philosophy was incorporated as worthy of their materialist goals. Perhaps this is why President Eisenhower was so adamantly against the Dewey craze in America.
[§] A number of STEM schools are backed by corporations who guarantee a job upon graduation.
"Half-educated men--all fact and no humanity--may still be good fodder for totalitarianism." - Allen Dulles