STEM Education Is Not Enough

Sir Peter Medawar
Sir Peter Medawar

W.J. Astore

If you’re in education, you’ve heard the acronym STEM. It stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  As a country, the USA is behind in STEM, so there are lots of calls (and lots of federal money available) for improvements in STEM.  Usually the stated agenda is competitiveness.  If the US wants to compete with China, Japan, Europe, India, and other economies, our students must do better in science and math, else our economy will atrophy.

Here’s a sample rationale that can stand in for hundreds of others: “International comparisons place the U.S. in the middle of the [STEM] pack globally,” said Debbie Myers, general manager of Discovery Communications.  And for corporate managers like Myers, that’s not good enough when competition in the global market is both endless and the means to the end, the end being profit.

I’m all for STEM.  I got my BS in mechanical engineering and worked as an engineer in the Air Force.  I love science and got my master’s and Ph.D. in the history of science and technology.  I love science fiction and movies/documentaries that explore the natural world around us.

And that’s one thing that bugs me about all this emphasis on STEM.  It’s not about curiosity and fun; it’s not even about creativity.  STEM is almost always pushed in the US in terms of market competitiveness.  STEM, in other words, is just another commodity tied to profit in the marketplace.

My other bugaboo is our educational establishment’s focus on STEM to the exclusion of the humanities.  At the same time as the humanities are undervalued, STEM is reduced to a set of skills as mediated and measured by standardized tests.  Can you solve that equation?  Can you calculate that coefficient of friction? Can you troubleshoot that server?  Results, man.  Give me results.

Sir Peter Medawar, a great medical researcher and a fine writer on science, spoke of scientific discovery as an act of creation akin to poetry and other so-called liberal arts.  Nowadays, we simply don’t hear such views being aired in US discourse.  STEM as an act of creation?  As a joyful pursuit? Bah, humbug.  Give me results.  Give me market share.  Make me Number One.

If we as a nation want to encourage STEM, we should be focusing not on rubrics and metrics and scores.  We should instead be focusing on the joy of learning about nature and the natural world. How we model it, manipulate it, understand it, and honor it by preserving it.  STEM, in other words, must be infused with, not divorced from, the humanities.  Why?  Because STEM is a human pursuit.

As we pursue STEM, we should also honor our human past, a past in which we’ve learned a lot about ethics, morality, and humane values.  The problem is that STEM education in the US is often present- and future-focused, with little time for the past.

In American society, those with respect for old ways and traditional values are often dismissed as Luddites or tolerated as quaint misfits (like the Amish).  After all, Luddites aren’t competitive. And Amish quilts and buggies won’t return America to preeminence in science and technology.  The US as a nation has nothing to gain from them.  Right?

Here’s the problem.  We connect STEM to material prosperity.  We dismiss those who question all this feverish attention to STEM as anti-science or hopelessly old-fashioned.  But there’s a lot we can from the humanities about ourselves and our world.

To cite just one example: Consider this passage from Jacob Burckhardt, a great historian writing during the industrial revolution of the late 19th-century:

material wealth and refinement of living conditions are no guarantee against barbarism. The social classes that have benefited from this kind of progress are often, under a veneer of luxury, crude and vulgar in the extreme, and those whom it has left untouched even more so. Besides, progress brings with it the exploitation and exhaustion of the earth’s surface, as well as the increase and consequent proletarianization of the urban population, in short, everything that leads inevitably to decline, to the condition in which the world casts about for ‘refreshment’ from the yet untapped powers of Nature, that is, for a new ‘primitiveness’ – or barbarism.”

What a party-pooper he was, right? Most of what the US defines as STEM is about “material wealth” and “refinement of living conditions,” the very definition of “progress,” at least for those out to make a buck off of it.

Burckhardt was warning us that “progress” tied to STEM had its drawbacks, to include the exhaustion of the earth’s resources as well as the exploitation of human labor. Divorced from ethics and morality, STEM was likely to lead to “primitiveness,” a new barbarism.

Tragically, Burckhardt was right. Consider the industrialized mass murder of two world wars. Consider the “scientific” mass murder committed by the Nazis. (By the way, the Nazis were great at STEM, valuing it highly.)

In a democracy, STEM divorced from the humanities is not “competitive,” unless your idea of competition is barbaric. Disconnected from humane values, a narrow education in STEM will serve mainly to widen the gap between the 1% and the rest of us while continuing to stretch the earth’s resources to the breaking point.

Education in STEM, in short, is not enough. But you won’t learn that by listening to corporate CEOs or presidents prattle on about competitiveness.

For that wisdom, you need to study the humanities.

Avoiding Egocentrism and Hyper-Competitiveness


One of my favorite quotations comes from the Jamaican bobsled coach.  Remember how the Jamaican bobsled team captured the world’s fancy?  A bobsled team from the Caribbean … how crazy is that?  They weren’t very good, but so what?  They gave it their all.

Anyway, here’s the quotation:

“If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.”

As soon as I read it, I recognized the wisdom and truth of those words.

Medals, trophies, awards, titles: they won’t fill the emptiness inside.  Oh, they’ll make you feel good for a few hours or a few days, but the feeling soon wears out.

We live in a hyper-competitive society in which it’s all about “winning,” whatever that means.  So focused are we on winning — which is usually both short-term and ephemeral — that we forget what’s really important in life.  Family, friends, health, a life of meaning and service, stuff like that.  Stuff that you may not win a gold medal for, but the stuff that truly matters.

A society based on competition and consumerism always pressures us to associate winning with acquisition.  I need that gold medal for affirmation!  And if I can’t get that, at least I can buy that Lexus SUV, that Kate Spade bag, or some other shiny object that feeds my ego.

Forget about medals and ribbons and titles.  Living a life of meaning is its own reward.

W.J. Astore