STEM v. History

28 Jan

STEM and History—

An American Irony

STEM is very big these days in the US of A. It’s the well-known acronym for “science, technology, engineering, and math.” If you watched the Tournament of Roses Parade, you noticed that its theme was STEM. Every bass drum that marched in the parade had the STEM motto stenciled on its drum head. 

In the past decade or so, high schools, colleges, and universities across the country have rearranged their curricula to emphasize STEM—sometimes drastically. It is increasingly difficult in many institutions to find courses in foreign languages, religion, philosophy, psychology, and history.

The reason for these changes is simple: the job market guides our education. A new engineer can expect to earn $80,000 per year. A humanities graduate might earn $50,000. An education major can count on the same.

This has prompted many state legislatures to put a premium on STEM. Some suggest that humanities students receive no financial aid at state institutions or even be charged higher tuition as penalty for insisting on “irrelevant” courses. A  governor of Kentucky said, “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be.” A liberal arts education is increasingly limited to students who can afford to attend expensive private institutions.

This should be no surprise. STEM is fundamental for the future of our society. Our place on the world stage depends on our science, technology, engineering, and math. Nearly every human being on planet earth depends on infrastructure, services, and care that are maintained by STEM.

Now comes the irony of present-day America. We aren’t spending much time debating the merits of STEM. The  hotly debated issues that capture our attention and divide us today are abortion and how to tell the story of American history and racism.

These are not issues that are relevant to a job seeker’s education. But these issues condition the lives of  those job-seekers and their families. STEM does not tell us when an embryo/fetus can be considered a human person; nor can it deal with the complex moral questions— yet our entire nation is forced to deal with such issues.

Local communities and many state legislatures are caught in a juggernaut of conflicting pressures about how to present U. S. history. Should Confederate statues be toppled? Should schools named for bygone racist leaders be changed? What about critical race theory? Or the history of Native American Indians? Local school board members are receiving death threats because of how they answer  these questions.

You might think that we would shape our education to include these burning issues, but we don’t. And the finest STEM education  is of little help when it comes to wrestling with history and morality.

This doesn’t mean that our STEM emphasis should be changed. But it does mean that our de-emphasis on humanities is short sighted, to say the least. Furthermore, we need to recognize that even if a historian or an ethicist may never earn as much as an engineer or a doctor or a nuclear physicist, they have important roles in our society today.

We also need sociologists, psychologists, therapists, and school teachers—for other reasons. Understanding our history will threaten some people: whites, especially white men, who are losing their traditional places of power and preeminence. Other groups are making their claim to power and privilege. This brings trauma—both personal and social. Psychologists, therapists, sociologists, and school teachers have much to offer in times of trauma.

What about pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, and other religious professionals? They are witnesses to the transcendence that surpasses the traumas of the present day. They are links to great traditions of well-winnowed wisdom that can guide us. They are moral teachers and exemplars, even though they, too, are fallible. STEM snaps their world, too, but it cannot raise them up or provide their training.

I quote my friend, Stewart Herman, who commented on an early draft of this blog: “STEM is morally mute and can’t help us with divisive political issues, which require the capacity of a citizenry to engage in empathetic listening and complex moral consideration. And that is the point of the humanities particularly religion, to help us imagine how others of different faiths understand their lives, and to give us a vocabulary and sensibility in order to engage in the kind of mutual understanding necessary to avoid blunt instrument politics. The developed capacity to listen, observe, absorb, and converse with what is different than you is absolutely critical to the survival of a democracy.”

I call our situation ironic, because of the disconnect between our STEM educational emphasis and the actual situation in which we live.

Bring on the STEM, by all means—but bring on the humanities and social professions, too!

(c) 1/28/2022

9 Responses to “STEM v. History”

  1. Richard Busse January 28, 2022 at 9:42 pm #

    Hi Phil. Excellent post. Wish we could get together sometime. I experience the irony you speak every day in my practice of law. And I still am an adjunct at Indiana University Northwest– teach online –Intro to Religion America the other class is Constitutional Law. My law practice consists of helping people solve their family, financial and employment problems.

  2. Liftthescreen January 29, 2022 at 8:10 pm #

    Good to hear from you, Rick, and thanks for the update. It would be great if we could ever get together. We’re just getting out of a lockdown. Neva had Covid earlier this month, but after 3 days in hospital, she’s doing well. Interesting that your teaching combines both religion and law. I would like to hear your stories. You should do a memoir!

    • Richard Busse January 30, 2022 at 2:27 pm #

      Sorry to hear about Neva. I also am a hemodialysis technician for my wife as we do dialysis at home every other day. It is quite a process, but much nicer than going to the center. At least we can stay in touch through email, but I think this sight is supposed to be for your blog.

  3. Liftthescreen February 7, 2022 at 1:45 am #

    Rick—message me your mail. I’d like to continue the conversation.

  4. Liftthescreen February 7, 2022 at 1:51 am #

    Esther Shir wrote: In my 23 years at a community college, we had to balance and re-balance this STEM v Humanities with each new academic year. We connected polls of the local businesses (which include Facebook and Amazon) and they did want students who were very competent in STEM subjects, but the employers emphasized that it was AS IMPORTANT to them to hire people who can think and write clearly! Many of the technical skills needed can be learned on the job, but the ability to think through a problem and come up with alternative strategies and write a decent report to explain the problems and strategies are tools the new hire needs beforehand.

    I had a double major at IU in Religion and American history and would not trade that knowledge for anything. While I went to grad school for a degree in Library Science, in truth, all of the skills I needed to be successful were learned on the job, starting as a minimum wage student employee filing cards in the card catalog!

  5. Liftthescreen February 7, 2022 at 2:06 am #

    Stewart Herman wrote: The liberal arts have been tarred with the charge of elitism. This is ironic, to say the least. During the 1960s, I recall a dramatic expansion of access to post secondary education, which included the liberal arts. But now taste for the democratic spreading of liberal education is going to leave the liberal arts alive, on life support, only in elite institutions. Self cannibalizing might not be too strong a term

  6. Liftthescreen February 7, 2022 at 2:13 am #

    Esther Shir wrote: In my 23 years at a community college, we had to balance and re-balance this STEM v Humanities with each new academic year. We connected polls of the local businesses (which include Facebook and Amazon) and they did want students who were very competent in STEM subjects, but the employers emphasized that it was AS IMPORTANT to them to hire people who can think and write clearly! Many of the technical skills needed can be learned on the job, but the ability to think through a problem and come up with alternative strategies and write a decent report to explain the problems and strategies are tools the new hire needs beforehand.

    I had a double major at IU in Religion and American history and would not trade that knowledge for anything. While I went to grad school for a degree in Library Science, in truth, all of the skills I needed to be successful were learned on the job, starting as a minimum wage student employee filing cards in the card catalog!

  7. Philip Hefner February 7, 2022 at 2:17 am #

    Laura Gottardi-Littell wrote: As someone with a BA in literature and philosophy, a Master of Divinity degree, now earning a Master of Liberal Arts degree at Chicago, I couldn’t agree with you more, Phil. My son who’s a math and physics student likely sees it differently though. I’m always encouraging him to keep reading literature, to talk and think about all kinds of disciplines, and he is.
    Your quote from your friend and colleague Stewart is especially apt.
    Thank you for this.

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