Today is the birthday of one of the STEM movement's major proponents, Sally Ride. She is a hero of mine because she went to space, and I think that is badass.
Ride was an important part of the successful movement to encourage greater emphasis on the STEM disciplines, STEM being Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
I am a proud fan of that movement. I hope to watch my kids build robots and computers for fun in the not-too-distant future.
And I am not alone. Policy makers, educators, and producers of educational materials have shown their support for an increased emphasis on the STEM disciplines.
But now people are upset because they believe this increased emphasis takes away from instruction in the arts. And they aren't really wrong.
As has been the case with many education reforms, a policy rooted in a good idea slowly gained too much inertia and grew unwieldy.
When Sally Ride began advocating for more emphasis on STEM education, she was mostly focused on reaching students who are under-represented in the STEM fields. STEM was sorely in need of new points of view. It still is. For this reason (and others) the continued emphasis on STEM learning outcomes remains a laudable goal.
But once people start buying into an argument, they sometimes can't stop. And the new-found love of all things STEM has led some to odd conclusions. There are those who have convinced themselves that the only valuable education is a STEM-based education.
From that leap of logic springs the inevitable backlash against STEM education goals.
That backlash, however, is not a reaction to the STEM movement; it is a reaction to the oversimplification of the STEM movement. People have pitted the STEM disciplines against the arts with a silly false dichotomy: science good = arts bad.
One result is people calling for policy that replaces STEM with STEAM - making it Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math.
While this does undermine the false dichotomy, the movement for STEAM is misguided.
I never thought I'd be one to dismiss an argument for better representation of the arts. I studied theater and fiction. I support the arts in my community. I want more arts in school.
But changing STEM to STEAM is the wrong way to go about that.
STEM education goals are great, but they are not the only goals in our schools.
And no intelligent STEM advocate is calling for that.
If a school cuts art programs, we should not blame the STEM disciplines. We should blame the school for such cuts.
The STEM movement was never supposed to be about bashing the arts or replacing the humanities with "more practical" skills. This is not a zero-sum game.
But that is the suggestion made by the effort to change STEM to STEAM: 'If we jam an 'A' in there, we've got all of the goals of schooling in this one acronym.'
Not only is that is a misrepresentation of the work done by Sally Ride and others like her, it is a disservice to the broader goals of education. Where is history in that acronym? Where is philosophy or civics?
STEM disciplines exist alongside the arts and humanities. They are complementary ways of looking at the world.
We should not try to insert the arts into STEM. We should teach the STEM disciplines more effectively. We should also teach the arts more effectively. Our civics classrooms should foster more active participation in governance. Hell, I think every high school kid ought to take an intro to philosophy course.
We should teach our children the many ways to examine the world in an effort to foster scientists who value aesthetics, artists who value systematic inquiry, politicians who can grasp the nuance of a scholarly debate on climate change, pundits who can hear another point of view, and the list goes on. Our goal should be to foster innumerable ways to see the world.
Let STEM be.
If you want better outcomes in the arts or the humanities, look to what Sally Ride did, and reach out to the kids who need it most. Show them the beauty of viewing the world through many lenses.