What's more important than STEM?

28 November 2017
28 Nov 2017
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

The reason we learn, and the reason we teach, is to allow us to affect change on the world, for the better.

At some point in history, the STEM skills — knowing how physical things worked — was deemed the most powerful skill. It allowed us to create new technologies that pushed the world along.

And because STEM was a lucrative skill in the last century, it persisted in how we think about education.

But it was never a perfect model, and it’s starting to show its age even more today. The way we affect change in the world in 2017 is not by laying down longer railroads or digging faster fiber lines or creating more efficient processors, because in 2017, information is cheaper than ever and insight is easier to buy. The power of 2017 is in the arts.

The arts affects change by changing people. It asks important questions or makes us uncomfortable. It pokes fun at the present and imagines a future far beyond today’s engineers.

When was the last time something moved you to tears? Was it a work of smart engineering, or a piece of art that spoke to you? Which would be more likely to create change in how you live, a new technical discovery, or an eye-opening film?

This isn’t just a gut feeling — it’s hardwired into our biology. Human action is driven more by emotion and memory than by logic. Even if we can conceive of a technical solution to a problem, we won’t be moved to act on it, unless we are inspired to do so.

Technology helps us live better lives, more comfortably, more healthily. But it’s the arts that blossoms new ideas and moves people to change. One is our subsistence and resource, while the other is our raison d’être.

I’m a classic STEM student. I graduated as a prospective computer science major with a strong mathematics and physics background. I’m the last person to say the sciences are boring or useless. But something clicked this year that flipped my perspective.

While science and technology marvel in their own right, more often, I’m moved by brilliant artistry and impactful words to change my mind or see things a little differently. Because this is how people work. STEM skills enable us, but the arts inspires us to get up and get things done.

And that’s why I’m distraught whenever I see STEM thrown around at maker faires or classroom settings as if it’s the panacea of a student’s future success. The reality is that it’s just not. It’s a useful resource, a tool, and sometimes a source of curiosity. But it leaves too many boxes unchecked to go alone.

And these boxes matter. It’s the ability to persuade other people and create empathy with words. The ability to create original ideas. The ability to stand in the shoes of the people from a century ago, as with people from across the world. It’s the skills to take an idea and wrap in in imagery and language to deliver it in just the perfect way, that when another person reads it, they’ll feel, and be compelled to act.

Are you getting the picture yet?

STEM is about what we do, but the art is about why we do it.

Science and technology enables us to innovate, but the arts keeps us pointed in the right direction.

When refugees across the planet and nearby were caught in humanitarian crises, it was not a technical solution we reached for, but the hands of photographers and writers, to heal wounds and retell their stories of suffering.

When the merits of social networking and machine learning technologies were called into question last election, it was not technologists, but the words of writers and artists that brought forth the best insights.

And whenever the next wave of generational challenges comes rushing at us, I’m certain it will not be the closest science textbook we’ll reach for, but the great novels, the poetic works, and the worn paintings of artists that we’ll hold on to for guidance and old ideas made relevant again.

And yet, we seem to be stuck on this strange idea that a rigorous focus and investment in the STEM subjects will churn out the most educated students we’ve had.

Today, more than ever, I struggle to see how divesting from a core part of how our society copes with challenges helps out students.

There are things more important than STEM. It’s called the arts, and it’s what makes life worth living.

And as such, we should treat the arts with the same great urgency and enthusiasm with which we teach the sciences.

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