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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