STEM Education Severs the Arts from the Sciences



What’s the most effective way to dumb down a nation?



Focus on How without Why.



That’s really the biggest problem with the pedagogical fad of STEM education.



There’s nothing objectively wrong with teaching science, technology, engineering and math – the disciplines that make up STEM.



In many cases, doing so is essential to a well-rounded education.



But therein lies the problem – you can’t have a well-rounded education if you purposely leave out some of the most vital aspects of knowledge.



Where’s the art? Where’s the literature? Where’s the social studies, government, citizenship, drawing, painting, music – heck! Where’s the philosophical understanding of life, itself?



STEM initiatives often involve creating two tiers of school subjects. You have the serious disciplines that will earn you respect and a job. And you have the soft, mamby pamby humanities that are no good to anyone.



The problem is one of focus not content.



Corporate-minded bureaucrats who know nothing of human psychology, child development or education look solely at standardized test scores and get hysterical.



The U.S. is falling behind other nations – especially in science and math, they say. So we must do whatever we can to bring those test scores up, Up, UP!



Yet they have never bothered to see that our student test scores have never been at the top of the pack for all the decades we’ve been making international comparisons.



We started contrasting multiple choice assessment results for 13-year-olds in a dozen countries back in 1964. And ever since, America has always been right in the middle.


Yet for those five decades we’ve dominated the world in science, technology, research and innovation.



In that time we sent the first people to the moon, mapped the human genome, and invented the Internet – all while getting middling test scores.



In short, standardized assessments are a fantastically unreliable indicator of national success, just as they are poor indicators of individual learning.



We’ve never been a nation content with picking our answers from four options – A,B,C,D. We blaze new paths!



But number obsessed fools have convinced a public blinded by sports statistics that these tests mean our kids are deficient. And the only cure is to put on blinders and focus almost exclusively on those subjects most featured on the tests.


Even reading and writing are only valuable if they let us guess what a normalized reader is supposed to comprehend from a given passage and if they allow us to express ourselves in the most rudimentary and generic ways.



This is exactly what they do in countries with the highest test scores – countries that are LESS innovative than the U.S.



Asian countries from Singapore to South Korea to India are not blind to this irony. While we are trying to imitate them, they are trying to imitate the kind of broad liberal arts education in which we used to pride ourselves.


“Many painters learn by having fun,” said Jack Ma, founder of one of China’s biggest Internet companies Alibaba.


“Many works of art and literature are the products of having fun. So, our entrepreneurs need to learn how to have fun, too.”


Ma worries that his country is not as innovative as those in the West because China’s educational system focuses too much on the basics and does not foster a student’s complete intelligence, allowing him or her to experiment and enjoy the learning process.


In other words, no matter how good you are at math and science, you still need to know how to learn, think and express yourself.


To be fair, these criticisms of STEM are not new.


Even global pundits like Fareed Zakaria have made similar arguments.


The result has been a hasty addition – change STEM to STEAM by adding in the arts.


Unfortunately, this hasn’t always worked out for the best.


Most of the time, the arts component is either an after thought or merely a sweetener to get students interested in beginning the journey – a journey that is all STEM all the time.


There is still an education hierarchy with the sciences and math at the top and the humanities and social studies at the bottom.


This is extremely unfortunate and will cause long-term detrimental effects to our society.


For instance, we pride ourselves in being democratically ruled. Political power does not come from authority, it comes from the consent of the governed.


This requires a public that knows how to do more than just add and subtract. Voters need to understand the mechanisms of government so they grasp their rights. They need a knowledge of history so they don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. They need to grasp human psychology, anthropology, and sociology to understand how people work in groups and individually.


Moreover, as human beings, they need the humanities. People have thoughts and feelings. They need to know how to express those thoughts and feelings and not just by writing a five-paragraph essay. They need to be able to create works of art. They need to be able to write a story or poem. They need to be able to manipulate images. They need to understand and create music.


Without these things, it can be difficult to become fully actualized people.


That used to be the goal of education. Provide students with the tools to become the best version of themselves.


But this focus on STEM and STEAM only endeavors to make them the best cogs the workforce needs.


We have relinquished our commitment to students and replaced it with a commitment to business and industry.


The idea is that schools owe the job market workers. That could not be further from the truth. We owe our students the tools that will help them live the best lives. And employment is only one small facet of that goal.


I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach math and science. We should – we MUST. But those can’t be prioritized over and above other essential human endeavors.


We need to fund and encourage a broad liberal arts education for all students. As they get older and move on to post-secondary studies including industrial arts they will inevitably specialize in areas that they find most interesting.


But until then, it is our job to give them every opportunity to learn – not to mold them into future wage slaves or boost national pride with arbitrary and meaningless test scores.


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20 thoughts on “STEM Education Severs the Arts from the Sciences

  1. Why not prepare them for the work force and self-fulfillment? STEM-like initiatives come and go. (I’ve been teaching over forty years.) Hands-on experimentation is more meaningful than textbook learning. But you don’t really need expensive kits and experts to do that for you. That’s where administration gets it wrong. A little research from teachers and investment in cheap materials found often at dollar stores will bring the same results. (It doesn’t look as good on aspiring bureaucratic resumes not to use the trendy buzzwords and pricey programs but a simple explanation and mention of cost effectiveness can look just as good, right?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, Tom. It’s more about framing and emphasis than the content. We can and should do more hands on activities in class. But it becomes difficult when administrators require constant test prep and skill drills. Let teachers teach.

      Liked by 1 person

    • What an interesting idea, Ciedie! However, we need more than just proximity to the means to create music. We need an understanding of what music is, how it can move us and what it means to love and appreciate all art including individual people and peoples.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. As a science and math teacher, I am confused and offended by this new line of thought coming from people I’ve respected and followed for years. The implication that math and science teachers are less responsive to student needs and unable to integrate humanities or arts is insulting, especially in light of the new NGSS curricula that focus on implementing solutions to real-world challenges. By nature those challenges are multi-faceted and involve writing, listening, speaking, an understanding of political science, human needs and wants, and more. Pray tell me what exactly is selfish (as stated in a recent BAT meme) about advocating for clean water, reducing carbon emissions, or developing tissue engineering solutions for heart disease?

    Science and engineering are deeply creative and at their core, human endeavors. Our society needs MORE respect for science and engineering, not less. When the flat earthers and anti-vaxxers and climate deniers have lost their voice, then we can relax.

    Right now we need to be working together, not throwing up walls based on fear and jealousy.


    • Chris, I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood me. I have tremendous respect for science and math as well as for those who teach those subjects. Nor do I think science and math eschew creativity. However, I think there should be the same respect for all disciplines including the arts and humanities. STEM creates a hierarchy of courses with math and science on the top and everything else on the bottom. It feeds the idea that the arts and social studies are less important than other fields of knowledge. They aren’t. We need them all. Imagine if the only place students learned about evolution was when reading the play “Inherit the Wind.” Imagine if the only astronomy they got was from reading Ray Bradbury. That wouldn’t be good, either. Children need a well rounded education and STEM works against that goal.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “STEM” just stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. “STEM” doesn’t create a hierarchy of anything. If corporate reformers are creating a hierarchy, let’s say so, and not just declare that science education prevents well-rounded student experiences. Because it does not, and it’s insulting to all of the passionate STEM educators across the country who are devoted to helping students become socially active citizens who can think for themselves.


      • Science is not STEM. Neither is technology, engineering or math. STEM is when you group those disciplines together and promote them over and above everything else. I say again I have nothing against any of these disciplines. I firmly support them all. My problem is with holding them as more valuable than the arts and humanities.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Gotta side with Chris on this one. STEM doesn’t create a hierarchy at all. It just acknowledges that these subjects go hand in hand. Adding the A for art wasn’t done to appease anyone either, it was acknowledging the similarities in the subject matter. The design process encourages creativity and risk taking and learning from failure and mistakes. It’s not just memorizing facts and figures.

      Teaching STEM in no way takes away from other subjects and if it does, it’s because that district is lacking in effective leadership. The arts were being cut in schools long before STEM was a thing.


  3. I beg to differ, Steven, and I ask you honestly how much experience you have with the Next Generation Science Standards.

    Engineering is integrated into the new science standards. Using math is one of the science and engineering practices woven throughout the standards. The use of technology to solve problems is part of the crosscutting concepts that permeate the standards.

    In the end, it’s all science.

    I am as big a foe of corporate reform as any classroom teacher I know. I am telling you that the NGSS is NOT common core – it was written by actual scientists within input from real teachers. It’s rich in critical thinking skills – we’re actually teaching kids to argue from EVIDENCE with civility – and it is building equity like nobody’s business.

    Science education is NOT something to be feared.

    Please connect with a real classroom science teacher who’s well versed in the NGSS. You might be surprised.


    • I guess we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this, Chris. There is a huge body of work and research on this that finds real problems with STEM in schools all across the country. It’s not about fearing science education or disparaging it for not being creative. It’s about holding the arts and humanities with the same reverence. You can’t do that by reducing time for literature and art with the excuse that the science or math teacher will make up for it in their classes. And I’m sure you’d feel the same if we lived in a world where science and math were cut and mostly taught in CLAY (Crafts, Literature, Arts and Yarn)— I admit that Y was hard to find a discipline for but I found one!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. STEM as a fully integrated, program of substance is a figment of the imagination.

    Science incorporates math in chemistry and physics mostly with formula work and simple algebra.

    Math is still mathematics with virtually zero integration of science. Math teachers have little background in the quantitative sciences.

    Technology is all about using a single slice of it (computers) – little to do with understanding it on the proper scale. A little code writing here and there. Energy system? Transportation Systems? Communication systems? Etc. get almost no attention.

    Engineering is just a word used to make administrators look good. Inclusion in the NGSS is a complete joke. Where are the teachers trained in civil, mechanical, aerospace, or electrical engineering coming from? The term “engineering” under NGSS simply means asking kids to do some trial and error design work with virtually no background knowledge – and no ability to transfer. Engineering is a farce, especially K to 10.


    • NY Teacher – you need some help and some good PD in NGSS. Engineering is a way of systematically solving problems – problems based on human needs and wants – and evaluating those solutions. It involves using systems models, criteria and constraints, optimization, decision matrices, etc. as problem-solving tools. It develops habits of mind that help students succeed in all aspects of life. I’ve had sixth graders create their own decision matrices to decide whether to play basketball or take dance lessons. I’ve taught many engineering lessons without building a single thing.

      Engineering certainly isn’t just a “word” and it definitely isn’t just for engineers. Get some help on this.


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