Punya Mishra on STEM and the humanities

My friend and mentor Punya Mishra was recently interviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald about the balance of STEM and humanities in modern education systems. The over-emphasis on STEM at the expense of the humanities has long been a pet peeve of mine, so it comes as no surprise that I would agree with excerpts from the article like this one:

An over-emphasis on STEM is robbing students of the humanities-based skills they need to navigate the ‘dark arts’ of fake news, social media and online distortion, a world-leading expert in classroom technology has warned. Subjects such as history and art taught students how to question the status quo and see different perspectives, Professor Punya Mishra from Arizona State University, told a conference in Sydney.

That said, there’s an interesting progression of ideas in this article that I’d like to call attention to. Punya makes one other comment that I whole-heartedly endorse:

Education systems had over-emphasised STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – at the expense of the humanities and altering that to STEAM by including arts in the acronym was not enough, said Professor Mishra. The “humanistic” skills were the ones that would give students the tools to decide what was real, fair and right, he said. “They’re the skills of the historian, the skills of the humanist, the skills of the artist – the ability to look at things from different perspectives.”

The problem that I’ve always had with STEAM is that it only validates “arts” by making it part of STEM. That is, anything the arts can do, STEM can do better. Plus, what do “the arts” in a STEAM curriculum include anyway? Do they include “the skills of the historian, the skills of the humanist” that Punya mentions? Or are they just the creative application of STEM skills, with a bone thrown to those of us who are worried about the arts and humanities? We could add history and humanities to an increasingly-unwieldy acronym, but at what point, as Dr. Matthew Boyer once asked in one of my favorite tweets on the subject, do we just start calling it school again instead of trying to frame everything in terms of STEM?

Later in the article, Dr. Matt Bower is invited to respond to Punya’s comments, and I think his response, arguing that “there was no evidence to suggest an over-emphasis on STEM,” is telling:

“In fact, many of the critical thinking skills students learn in STEM [for instance, logical deduction, disproof by contradiction] can be applied in humanities-based areas,” he said. “What we really need is for our students to develop strengths in STEM and the humanities. Our children will be most empowered by integrating their skills in sciences and humanities, rather than seeing them as separate silos.”

While I agree with the need for people to develop strengths in STEM and the humanities (not much of a surprise, considering that multiple of my current research projects involve both programming in R and translating tweets from one language to another), this response seems to me to go right back to the STEAM problem: It’s an argument that STEM can provide the same skills that the humanities can provide, and that ultimately, STEM and the humanities ought to be indistinguishable from each other (with the implicit argument that if that’s the case, STEM ought to be doing the heavy lifting).

One of my biggest pet peeves in the ongoing discussion of the balance between STEM and the humanities in modern education is this lukewarm acknowledgement that the humanities have something to offer while ultimately arguing that STEM can offer it better. It reminds me of an argument I had on Twitter with someone who asserted that foreign language education had the power to be beneficial but wasn’t being carried out properly and therefore should be cast aside in favor of computer science education. When I asked (multiple times) why we shouldn’t improve foreign language education—assuming his assertions were valid—rather than cast it aside, the only answer I got was “it’s not working, let’s stop doing it and focus on something more important.” The way that I’m framing this assumes that there is such an inherent value, and while I firmly believe that to be the case, I acknowledge both that 1) an argument needs to be made for the validity of such an assumption and 2) I have not made that argument in this post. Nonetheless, I’m tired of this halfway recognition of the humanities—if they truly have the value that so many STEM advocates seem to acknowledge, why isn’t that value sufficient to keep them around?