Humanizing STEM: A Different Kind of Relevance


David_Ferrero_headshotFor the last two years I’ve been deeply involved in the national movement to align K-12 schooling more tightly with the competitive interests of U.S. industry by giving more prominence to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). It’s exciting and important work. Yet I privately fret over the way STEM advocacy, and current reform efforts in general, inadvertently devalue the humanistic and civic dimensions of a basic education.

To their credit, the most thoughtful STEM advocates resist narrowing the curriculum by emphasizing how valuable arts education is to STEM career preparation. The arts are essential, they say, because they cultivate imagination, creativity, and design sense, which are indispensable to STEM career fields and an economy fueled by innovation. I think they’re right.

This justification is incomplete, however, because it doesn’t really do justice to the arts, or to the civic or humanistic purposes of schooling that the arts and humanities serve. I unpack these concerns and propose adaptive strategies for teachers who share them in “The Humanities: Why Such a Hard Sell?” in the March issue of Educational Leadership.

Meanwhile, because the workforce development/economic competitiveness imperative so dominates the STEM movement, it’s easy to forget that the STEM disciplines can also be studied as part of a humanistic education. It’s worth recalling, for example, that math is beautiful, true, and good in its own way; that the development of the physical and natural sciences over the centuries has been motivated in part by a universal human desire to make sense of the world; and that technological innovations throughout history have been fueled not only by economic necessities but also by a basic human restlessness and the quest for mastery over nature.

Just as the arts can serve STEM and industry, the study of STEM can serve the humanistic and civic aims of education. It can deepen and expand students’ self-understanding by exposing them to key subplots in the human story–subplots that intertwine with those of politics, religion, literature, philosophy, and the arts. This is another way to make STEM–and the rest of the curriculum–“relevant” to students. It’s a kind of relevance that, along with the humanities, seems to have been forgotten.

Do you agree that this sort of relevance is still relevant? Or am I simply being nostalgic for a time when educational aspirations beyond careers and competitiveness mattered?

Post submitted by David J. Ferrero, who supports STEM and other college- and career-ready initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The views expressed in this post are those of the author and are not in any way intended to reflect those of the foundation.)