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STEM vs STEAM: a Proposal for an Uncommon Core

STEM vs STEAM: a Proposal for an Uncommon Core

Be warned: rant ahead.

I promise there’s also a solution at the end. 

The STEM vs STEAM Rant

The tail is wagging the dog again. Some committee who’s most certainly well-intentioned has determined that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are the ways that government schools ought to approach education, as this government website says, “for global leadership.” Right.

If anyone wanted to recall the Renaissance, or perhaps in more recent memory, the various world leaders who could actually perform convincingly on a musical instrument (here’s video of Bill Clinton playing the sax on Letterman) the notion of STEAM might be more interesting, since  including art (the A in STEAM) in a curriculum has been proven to magically enhance the rest of those cerebral pursuits. Evidence for this goes back, well, several thousand years. There was a time in ancient China, for example, when powerful respected politicians were also poets and sometimes artists.

This is no time to belabor the dismal record America’s government schools have accumulated teaching the arts in primary and secondary education (they have none). Government education offloads that responsibility (yes it is a responsible part of education to at least expose kids to the arts!) to government-subsidized colleges and universities when it’s too late to have an impact on a formative young mind.

(This is not a blog about how eliminating the arts from government education may have resulted in some of the poorest test scores in generations, except to say that “common core” (more about that here) can only hope to realize common mediocrity by senselessly excluding the arts. No secret about where I stand on this issue!)

We’re also not discussing the abundant evidence in most of Western and Eastern Europe and Asia for a more, er, benevolent focus on the power of a solid arts curriculum. It doesn’t take a STEM scientist to look around and take note of the nations who have excelled in STEM since the 1960s: that last major STEM government program America has to offer is still named NASA but its exploits have been eclipsed by the technological prowess of such nations as Japan, South Korea and China, not to mention private companies who can hire STEM folks from oversees. Even our good friends in the former Soviet Union still recognize the value of government-supported arts academies. It doesn’t matter that American companies like Apple have built convincing sustainability at the intersection of technology and liberal arts because of the ignorance of that fact at the United States Department of Education.

Here in my own backyard, Qualcomm, the biggest single employer of STEM-savvy folks for miles around, can’t find any of them at local universities. No DoE STEM edict is going to change that overnight, or even in this generation. There’s a reason that search for the origins of matter is taking place at CERN (Europe) rather than a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley at SLAC (California).

Another mistaken fascination with STEM has to do with buzzwords like “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary.” It’s trendy right now to look at the fractures between subjects as taught in government schools and attempt to recombine them simply by saying that they are now interconnected (by what magic did that happen?) and that all teaching staff will teach a holistic curriculum that crosses all disciplines. How to accomplish that without art has yet to be explained, but since no one currently making the rules really seems to understand the value of an arts education, it’s probably to be expected.

A Possible Solution

What’s the answer?

We’ve been throwing more and more money at government education for so long without results that perhaps it’s time for a cat wrangler.

That is, we know there’s no shortage of teachers for music, fine art, dance, theater, poetry and creative writing. There are probably plenty of successful STEM folks out there with more than a passing interest in the arts (how well did Albert Einstein play the violin?). Let’s bring some of the leaders in the STEM world into contact with the leaders in the Arts world and let them drive a convincing wedge into the boneheaded government bureaucrats behind “common core.” Let’s explain, using little words, how learning Art develops young brains better than any other curriculum known to man. Imagine where Steve Jobs could have taken Apple if he had stayed with his early music lessons, or where any ADHD kid might be able to go in education if instruction from an accredited Suzuki music teacher was made mandatory (did you know that most professional, working drummers are ADHD?).


(I know music, and this is in no way meant to slight the other arts, but rather to encourage you to write your point of view from whatever artistic discipline you inhabit.)

If you look carefully at the intersection of arts and technology, you’re going to find an incredibly talented resource pool: music therapists. Most of the board-certified music therapists with an active practice today could also be deployed into primary and secondary education to great effect. Why music therapists? They have the training to know how to marry people skills with musical ones to serve the purpose of advancing a patient’s health and well-being. Think of the at-risk kids you might know stuck in government schools: are any of them autistic? Music therapists are excellent at dealing with autistic kids.

Do you know any kids with learning disabilities? Music can be adapted to teach facts, improve memory and speed up the learning process. Then there’s the amazing brain-building capabilities music has that integrate movement, sight, hearing, thinking and touch like no other educational tool can do. Learning music can teaches science through vibration, technology through recording and editing, engineering through either theory, composition or mastering a satisfying recording and mathematics through rhythm, time signatures and note values. And that’s just off the top of my head. Fine artists, poets and writers probably have a few insights on this as well.

There are some amazing humanitarian organizations filling up the government school’s missing arts education gap. There are probably more than a handful close ot where you live. Would any of those NGOs be interested in helping put the A into STEAM? You bet they would!

Am I making my point? Are you beginning to see the magic of STEAM and the fallacy of STEM?

Let’s get this snowball rolling downhill. It’s time to put ART back at the core of education.