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Desert Companion

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Humanities Bot
Illustration by Brent Holmes

With graduation season almost here, a few reflections about STEM, the humanities, and the whole point of going to school anyway

It’s not that I don’t get the value of STEM education. I do. As an adult who relies on his kids to figure percentages and his grandkids to work the remote, I understand all too well the downside of lacking proficiency in Science, Technology, Engineering, and (ugh) Math. Plus, what’s not cool about kids making robots? Soon enough, if it’s not already, technology will be to us what water is to the fish in that David Foster Wallace parable, the one in which a fish asks, “What’s water?” That is, something so ubiquitous and necessary to life that it’s taken entirely for granted. So, in theory, I’m down with the STEM.

But then I see a quote like this, from an official with the Clark County School District’s Community Partnership Program, which appeared last year in an issue of our own Desert Companion Family: “The technology industry is so critical to everything we do today as a society. We have to build a workforce to fill jobs that don’t exist yet, and that we don’t even know the technology for yet. So we as educators have to start preparing our children.” Similar sentiments crop up everywhere, from legislative and social conversations about the school system to, say, the Nevada System of Higher Education’s “New model for funding higher education in Nevada, which talks of “greater alignment with the state’s focus on economic development.” And I think, well, hold on a minute. Build a workforce — is that what school is for?

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By now you can see where this is going, and yes, I know we’ve got more pressing educational concerns than an overemphasis on STEM. America’s students are middle-of-the-pack in international scholastic achievement. Nevada seems forever barnacled to the bottom of every educational ranking — Education Week gave us a D grade in January — while the Clark County School District lately seems to be continually restructuring, deconstructing, or suing someone. And all this unfolds amid a combative sociopolitical climate that imparts a grim, apocalyptic urgency to pretty much everything.

All true. Nonetheless, this STEM thing drives deeper than it first seems and, in fact, poses a question crucial to education in the 21st century, perhaps the crucial question: What do we want schools, from K-12 to higher ed, to do?

Build a workforce! might be your answer. And, sure, I feel you, to a degree. In this recession-singed, automated, offshoring era, it makes a certain kind of sense to aim students at high-tech jobs now that robots are stealing the low-tech ones. At the same time, doesn’t that seem like such a narrow, limiting chute to herd our kids into? Trundle dutifully toward your job, kids! It could be that I just bunch up with old-fashioned truculence at the idea of treating children as units of economic development, but, having put three sons through the school district, and with a glurge of grandkids soon to follow, I still prefer the approach perhaps best articulated by Martin Luther King Jr.: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” Sounds like he’s talking about creating good citizens, not turning out worker drones.

Dismiss me as a crazy idealist — you wouldn’t be the first — but I’m certainly not alone in thinking this way. A few months ago, I talked to Jeremy Gregerson, head of the Meadows School, about what he termed “the vocation-ization of education in this country,” a growing sense among politicians, parents, some educators, and some students themselves that “if you can’t immediately apply it to a paying job, it must not be worth learning.” So where does that leave the softer disciplines of the humanities?

The embrace of STEM itself isn’t the problem, we agreed. He’s not advocating an either/or situation. Technological literacy is a good thing, as my granddaughter reminds me every time she hands back the remote. What’s worrisome is the fervor of that embrace, and the way it retasks the purpose of education as an economic driver, and the devaluation of the humanities that sometimes goes with it. Consider this New York Times headline from last year: “A rising call to promote STEM education and cut liberal arts funding.”

Yet, an education rich in humanities is, or should be, every bit as vital to a student’s future — and ours. “Computer science is important, and coding is important,” Gregerson says, “but without adding creativity, and empathy, and an understanding of human communication, coding and computer science don’t really get you very far.” As one online commenter put it, “We’re investing so much into developing the right side of our brains, we’re forgetting that it’s only half of what we have to work with.”

Because this is a philosophical argument, I brought this up to a philosopher.

“What is the function of education?” wondered Bill Ramsey, a UNLV philosophy professor, when I asked him about it. It’s misguided to frame going to school or college primarily in workforce terms, he says. “We should be thinking about what kind of citizens we want to live next door to.”

Still, let’s look at it in workforce terms for a minute. Because it’s not like the liberal arts are antithetical to the high-tech workplace, no matter how many jokes you crack about the job prospects of philosophy majors. (“You gonna think for a living, har har har!”)

In December, David Kalt, founder of Reverb.com, an online marketplace, wrote a blog post for The Wall Street Journal, asserting that workers with liberal arts degrees are “by far the sharpest, best-performing software designers and technology leaders.” Why? Liberal arts majors have been encouraged in critical thinking, as Gregerson and Ramsey both pointed out. “Critical thinkers can accomplish anything,” Kalt says. (Ramsey: “I’d be willing to bet you can apply a philosophy degree to a lot more careers than you can a mathematics degree.”) I’ve seen plenty of similar commentaries lately.

Kalt concludes, “I’m suggesting that if more tech hires held a philosophy or English degree with some programming on the side, we might in the end create better leaders in technology and life.”

I particularly like the way he put technology and life on equal footing. This is where we bend back to the main point, what I think is the overlooked thing in our rush to embrace STEM for the sake of Nevada’s economic future: As much as a good job, a good society is a desirable educational goal, and that will ultimately require ever more thoughtful, multidimensional graduates. Because while technology may be the water we live in, capitalism is still the fishbowl that contains it. And capitalism isn’t all that concerned about happy outcomes for the fish. It cares about production, consumption, and profits (mostly for the sharks). Sure, prosperity can address some of our problems, but it can’t solve nearly all of them. Look around our strife-riven, us-versus-them, anger-filled trollscape, and tell me we couldn’t use waves of graduates clomping offstage, diplomas or degrees in hand, who’ve been groomed to be creative, engaged citizens as well as drones. 

 

Disclosure

My wife works for the school district, though not in a capacity affected by this argument; she had no hand in this piece.