Monday, 30 April 2012

The STEM Agenda and Educational Authenticity

My attention was drawn to this video 'advertising' STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects which was produced by students in a US college. I don't want to take anything away from their artistic performances, but I do want to comment on the message and the manner in which the message is presented.

The fundamental thing is the sheer  inauthenticity of it. The forced enthusiasm extolling the 'coolness' of science or mathematics is peculiar and rather unnerving. But if I was to speak against these kids' enthusiasm for science (if it really was genuine and I was misjudging it) I would be fearful of committing a kind of heresy. Mine would be a reactionary or purist complaint, not in tune with the young generation.

Well, stuff that - I am going to say something! The real problem with this is not that it is or isn't genuine (it isn't!), but that it escapes the principal ingredient of any branch of knowledge, which is love of the subject. It confuses exuberance for passion for a subject. These kids do not express a passion for mathematics or science; they express their own exuberance as performers acting a script that they don't appear to understand.

But the way it is done, the enthusiasm, the enforced 'rightness' or 'right-on-ness' of it all makes thoughtful critique difficult. It drowns out thoughtfulness in the name of extolling the virtues of science - a discipline which requires thoughtfulness more than any other human quality. Why? Where's the sense in that? Is this simply in the name of corporatism or political expediency? We should ask who serves to benefit from this kind of message, and then we should worry about the power that they wield not only on the education system, but on the growth and freedom of knowledge in our society.

But then we could ask "why have the STEM agenda in the first place?" Clearly governments are anxious to produce capable scientists and technicians. But, in another irony of the education system, teaching science and mathematics is not always the best way to get great scientists. Classics, languages, music, drama, literature and philosophy have between them had a highly successful track-record in producing technical and scientific minds. (This is interesting: What matters, more than anything else, is a love of knowledge and an unquenchable search for meaning in a confusing universe.

Cybernetics, perhaps more than any other science, has had a deep connection to the arts. Norbert Wiener studied mathematics and philosophy with Bertrand Russell and G.H. Hardy; Stafford Beer similarly studied philosophy at UCL; Bateson started in Biology, but ended up an anthropologist; Niklas Luhmann originally studied Law; Von Foerster started as a physicist, but was equally at home in the arts. The list goes on.

Why does this escape those that insist on the STEM agenda? There are of course well-meaning scientists who love their subject and believe kids should have the opportunity of experiencing it. But then there are politicians who watch their backs and try to ensure that their educational decisions are defensible. Imagine a politician supporting a position of prioritising the arts for the sake of producing better scientists! How would that be defensible? (yet it might make more sense!)

My answer to this is that the arts should become more genuinely scientific and critical. In fact, since the STEM agenda has a narrow view of science as a set of technical skilled performances (rather than a critical inquiry about nature), the arts are well-placed to be the home of true science. I think that one of the most important outcomes from critical realist research is that science is not scientific enough: it has lost the ability to inspect its own assumptions and methods. The arts, on the other hand, could fill this void because they require much deeper authenticity and honesty in engaging with what are on the whole bio-psychosocial phenomena. 

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