Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

The false ecumenicalism of STEAM

There's an editorial that I half-agree with in the latest issue of Scientific American, and like many things that get at half of an issue it's almost as dangerous as simply ignoring the issue.  The editors make the completely valid point that our society need more than just people who are trained in natural science and engineering, that we also need people who study the humanities and social sciences.  I agree completely, as you might gather from the fact that most of the books I've blogged about here are written by people who aren't trained in math, natural science, or engineering, and are primarily about non-technical issues.  I denounce the short-sightedness of politicians who want to focus our higher education system primarily on STEM.  Partly because (as I've said before) putting STEM on a pedestal is actually quite bad for STEM* and partly because the rest of society (i.e. the world beyond the walls of the science buildings on campus) also needs more than STEM.

The editors of SciAm get that society needs more than STEM, but they can't help but couch this need in terms of the economic competitiveness of high-tech industries:
The need to teach both music theory and string theory is a necessity for the U.S. economy to continue as the preeminent leader in technological innovation. The unparalleled dynamism of Silicon Valley and Hollywood requires intimate ties that unite what scientist and novelist C. P. Snow called the “two cultures” of the arts and sciences.
Steve Jobs, who reigned for decades as a tech hero, was neither a coder nor a hardware engineer. He stood out among the tech elite because he brought an artistic sensibility to the redesign of clunky mobile phones and desktop computers. Jobs once declared: “It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough—that it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” 
A seeming link between innovation and the liberal arts now intrigues countries where broad-based education is less prevalent. In most of the world, university curricula still emphasize learning skills oriented toward a specific profession or trade. The ebullience of the U.S. economy, which boasted in 2014 the highest percentage of high-tech outfits among all its public companies—has spurred countries such as Singapore to create schools fashioned after the U.S. liberal arts model.  
My problem with this is that it still has STEM on the pedestal:  There's nothing about the value of the humanities and social sciences** in their own right, only their significance for high-tech industries. Personally, my reason for reading and blogging about so many books on history, social issues, and so forth is that I want to understand people, not that people often work in STEM.  Teaching is an activity in which one can benefit from knowledge of history, psychology, etc. irrespective of what discipline one is in.  The value of humanities and social science for my work can thus be measured by how much my work involves people, not by how much humanities and social science help STEM.  More importantly, the value of humanities and social science should be measured according to more than just the extent to which they matter for my work (or anyone's "work", as opposed to the rest of life).

Now, in academia I can sense a backlash starting to stir against the current STEM craze.  However concerned I might be about how this pedestal will affect STEM, I can hardly expect sympathy from people who aren't in STEM.  The pedestal might have its downsides, but not being on the pedestal has even more downsides.  Consequently, some administrative types now talk about "STEAM", which stands for "Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics."  Nobody is entirely sure whether the "Arts" only include visual and performing arts, or also the liberal arts*** more broadly.  I'm less interested in definitions listed in some particular document and more interested in usage. When I hear administrators talking about the "A" in "STEAM" I've heard several different points, some of which could be roughly summed up as:

  1. "Designing technology requires attention to aesthetics."  This is a completely valid point that has been known for millenia, hence the history of architecture.
  2. "Designing technology requires attention to human factors more broadly."  Again, a completely valid point.
  3. "Scientists can learn a lot about their field from historians and philosophers of science and technology."  This is a point with which I also agree completely, and it informs much of my blogging here.  Indeed, I strongly encourage students to make connections between their major and their general education by taking classes on the history of science.
  4. "Solving workforce issues in the sciences requires the involvement of people who have considered the cultural factors and problems of inequality that affect the pipeline of talent."  While I might dissent from some of the most common narratives offered in regard to these topics, I completely agree that these are important areas for inquiry.  I would like to see more and broader inquiry on these issues.
However, do you notice that in each case the "Arts" (however construed) are examined only in regard to how they interact with STEM?  That's fine if the specific topic on the table is whether to include some non-STEM people in a STEM-focused endeavor, but not if the topic on the table is the purpose and future direction of a comprehensive university.  The STEAM buzzword could probably be invoked to justify hiring an art historian who emphasizes architecture, an English professor who is an expert on teaching technical writing, or an ethnic studies professor who studies equity issues in STEM.  However, I'm not sure that it could be invoked to justify hiring a historian who studies the cultural history of China, an English professor who's interested in 18th century American poetry, or an ethnic studies scholar who's interested in representations of ethnicity in cinema.  These people might fit under the Arts (at least in the sense of Liberal Arts) but I doubt that they would fit under any but the most bland (and thus pointless) definitions of STEAM.  STEAM is false ecumenicalism, a way of offering University Strategic Initiatives that are nominally inclusive of disciplines beyond STEM while still measuring those disciplines by the yardstick of STEM.  As long as the paramount yardstick of academic inquiry and teaching is relevance to STEM the Academy is going to suffer.

*In a society that is democratic in the way described by de Tocqueville, those academic fields that are deemed most important will have an obligation to take in the huddled masses, however unprepared and untalented they may be.  This may provide some benefit for members of the masses as individuals, at least initially, but it tends to impede the pursuit of excellence, and eventually the phenomenon of credential inflation will rear its head, to the detriment of all, but disproportionately hurting the least privileged.

**Whether or not the social sciences are included in STEM depends on whether the "S" in STEM is implicitly "NS" (Natural Science).  I personally exclude the social sciences from STEM, not because I disrespect the intellectual rigor of those fields but because I eschew linguistic prescriptivism in favor of looking at how people actually use words.  To wit, consider the following thought experiment:  We have two students, both of whom start off majoring in chemistry.  One of them then switches majors to physics, while the other switches majors to economics.  Would a typical "STEM crisis" hand-wringer react to both with equal nonchalance, saying "They're still in STEM", or would they evince more concern over the new economics major than the new physics major?

***We could also ask which disciplines get counted as "liberal arts", or the extent to which the liberal arts overlap STEM, but let's set that aside for now.

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