STEM,MASSH & p&t : WITHER GOEST THOU?
This piece is really a continuation of my work on the History and Philosophy of Education (Scribd 2009) in which I sought to lay out an easy guide to the evolution and purpose of education. Since publication of that piece much has transpired in education, especially American education.
Forty years ago, Marta Sotomayor and I completed a study of A Medio Grito: Chicanos and American Education (1974) for the National Council of La Raza funded by the Ford Foundation. That work exposed the shameful state of American education vis-à-vis Chicanos. An earlier piece of mine “Montezuma’s Children” published as a Cover Story by The Center Magazine (November/December 1970) of the Robert Maynard Hutchins Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions was so shocking in its revelations about Mexican Americans and their lack of progress in the American education system that Senator Ralph Yarbrough (D-Tx) read it into the Congressional Record 116, No. 189 (November 25, 1970, S-18961-S19865) and recommended it for a Pulitzer. “Montezuma’s Children” was reprinted extensively. That piece was followed up by my story on “Schools for Mexican Americans: Between Two Cultures as a Cover Feature for The Saturday Review (April 17, 1971).
I cite the above works as bona fides for my commentary in this piece on “STEM, MASSH, and P&T” There is little doubt that education has been the venue for civilized progress—how-ever oppressive that education has been at times in various parts of the world. In the United States today we are facing a dilemma of challenging proportions—how to educate a burgeoning population of 315 million. This is not an unusual challenge. All nations are faced with this dilemma. China and India face extraordinary challenges in educating their enormous populations. The nations of Africa face the same challenges. Everywhere, education is a challenge.
To stem the tide of declining achievements in education, the United States has escalated a push for educating its prospective workforce in STEM disciplines—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. I applaud this emphasis. We have fallen behind in these disciplines. The pool of a STEM prepared population has diminished, not for lack of capacity but owing to the smorgasbord of career options. This is not to say there is a glut of MASSH disciples in Music, Art, Social Sciences, and Humanities. There too there is a diminution of output. The Professions and Trades (P&T) seem to be doing relatively well. In the early 80s Alicia Cuaron and I were consultants to the National Association of Trade and Technical Schools (NATTS) in its efforts to provide trade and technical skills to new Americans.
The gist of this piece is spurred by a random thought about the expected outcomes of a STEM trained American workforce. A ludicrous stream of images flashed before my eyes, all of them rushing hither and yon, energized opticons of a STEM workforce, busy in pursuit of STEM tasks and assignments. All well and good! I have no complaints about that future.
That random thought was not engendered by complaint—rather, it was engendered more by curiosity. Where, I wondered, in that Lagerqvistian mass of STEMians rushing about in public were the MASSH products—musicians, artists, social scientists, humanists? Had STEM disciplines crowded out in that future the study of literature, of art, of music, of politics, of history? Does our STEM oriented workforce know who Cervantes was? Chaucer? Roland? How about Beowulf? Tchaikovsky? Goya? Picasso? Out of curiosity I asked one of our student science majors on our campus if he had read any Shakespeare while on campus? He said, no, not even while he was in high school since he was busy with his science interests. I’m well aware of Aristotle’s expression that “one swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day.”
I guess I’m advocating for a balanced way into that brave new world, a way balanced between science and the humanities, between history and technology, between music and math, between art and engineering, the kind of balance ushered in by the Western Renaissance in the 14th century which engendered interest in everything, seeing the whole of life bound inseparably one piece to another.
When I began my undergraduate studies at Pitt in the fall of 1948 I declared Metallurgical Engineering as a major. Though I ultimately inscribed myself as a Comparative Studies Major my initial semester as a Metallurgical Engineering major sparked my interest in Science, Technology, and Math. I took two years of chemistry, one year of geology, and one year of math along with courses in languages and literature (English, Spanish, French) as well as philosophy.
I was eagerly awash in intellectual discoveries. Not only did I discover the Periodic Table in my second semester of Chemistry but I discovered a trove of apocryphal books. When I discovered the philosophers of education I added an undergraduate track to my studies that prepared me for teaching and the acquisition of a high school teaching certificate in Pennsylvania to teach English, Spanish, and French. Finishing up my studies in the Spring of 1952 I student taught in French at Munhall High School in Munhall, Pennsylvania, an abutting steel community to Pittsburgh. I was subsequently a French teacher at Jefferson High School in El Paso, Texas, before moving on to a 50 year career in higher education involved in a number of disciplines.
I’ve never considered my “wayward” trek through the intellectual byways of learning as useless or as a waste. As Terence, the Roman playwright, put it: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me”). I have embraced all knowledge which has since embraced me shaping my intellectual curiosity and sense of inquiry.
STEM, MASSH, and P&T must continue apace in our collective discovery and construction of knowledge. John Donne had it right: “No man is an Island, each is a part of the main.” Momentarily, knowledge may be an island on an uncharted map—but not for long! It will be wrung into a usable shape for any number of intellectual tasks. One can say that STEM, MASSH, and P&T are like triple strands in an intellectual DNA or the three pillars of knowledge in a progressive society.
In its leaps and bounds, life is like a rompecabezas, a jigsaw puzzle that challenges us to fit the pieces into the picture proffered on the cover of the box. Experience and intuition help us in bringing the jigsaw puzzle to reality. Just as experience and intuition will help us bring the strands in the pillars of knowledge into a reality of the future.
In my early literary ventures, I was struck by a perception that all literature was related and could be envisioned in a literary field theory. In other words, Epics, for example, shared commonalities that sprung from the roots of different peoples navigating the rocks and shoals of life in their struggle for survival—thus in the weltanshauung of a people the literary need for a champion like Beowulf, Roland, Rodrigo, Gilgamesh, Odyseus, Orlando. The concept of a literary field theory has helped me to relay the meaning of literature to my students. The interrelatedness of literature not only makes me a better informed scholar but informs my scholarship and teaching.
I do not begrudge the advances of science, technology, engineering, and math, but neither should those disciplines begrudge the efforts to advance music, art, social sciences, and the humanities. The relationship should not be a dance macabre but a dance of discovering their respective g-spots. At the moment it appears that the objectives of STEM education are consonant with the objectives of MASSH education.
According to John L. Hall, Nobel Laureate in Physics, the academic concepts of STEM “are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and global enterprise” (“Respecting the Objectives of STEM education,” Honeywell Lecture, CETYS University, Mexicali, Mexico, November 8, 2011).The objectives of a MASSH education are also to help student make connections between school, community, work, and global enterprise.
My concern is not with the objectives but with the extremity of emphasis on STEM education. There is no doubt that we need a STEM trained workforce. My concern is that by obdurate emphasis on STEM education we don’t channel our workforce into a class cul-de-sac system of Brave New World. In the Nursery of Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931) Delta infants are reprogrammed to dislike books and flowers. The Director of the nursery explains that this conditioning helps make Deltas docile. Not that this is likely with STEM education; just checking.
Copyright 2014 by Dr. Phillip De Ortego y Gasca, Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy), Western New Mexico University.