Say yes to STEM & STEAM, but insist on liberal arts, philosophy, intellectualism and humanist education too


When we say STEAM, we are of course talking modern day Leonardo Da Vinci, Hypatia and Marie Curie type education, seeking out, developing and nurturing the talent of scientifically creative genius to find solutions to today’s problems:

“STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking. The end results are students who take thoughtful risks, engage in experiential learning, persist in problem-solving, embrace collaboration, and work through the creative process. These are the innovators, educators, leaders, and learners of the 21st century!” [ii]

But why, specifically, is STEAM needed? Basically, argue leading advisers, for our economic survival: to “meet the needs of a 21st century economy[iii] A recent article published by Forbes explained the shift: “Work based skills are changing as more and more jobs are displaced by digital technologies […]with self-driving vehicles on the way, how many taxi, trucking, express delivery–and even aviation jobs–will go the way of the telephone switchboard operator? If history is a reliable guide, the technologies that are eliminating one set of jobs will create others: jobs that require twenty-first century—mainly digital—skills.  The explosion in industrial robotics, for example, is eliminating thousands of assembly line jobs but it is creating a demand for people who can design, manufacture, program and maintain those machines.  The questions are –  what will the net impact on jobs be and how well are our schools preparing young people for those new, higher skilled jobs as we head toward the fourth industrial revolution?[iv]

The UK it seems, may be taking the lead in confronting these issues head on right now. The Forbes article author, Nicholas Wyman, went on to put the UK on a pedestal, focused on Lord Baker’s current work: “According to Edge Foundation Chairman, Lord Kenneth Baker, “The U.K.’s future workforce will need technical expertise in areas such as design and computing, plus skills which robots cannot replace – flexibility, empathy, creativity and enterprise.” The Edge Foundation has released an 8 point plan of action in a manifesto called ‘The Digital Revolution’, elaborating how such a vision could be reached (click the link below to see the 8 point plan in the Forbes piece). Lord Baker was praised for his vision: ““Knowledge is as necessary as ever, but it is not enough,” says Lord Baker, “It has to be connected with the real world through practical applications ranging from engineering and IT to the performing, creative and culinary arts.  We need 21st education for a 21st century economy.””[v]

So Lord Baker puts knowledge in its place – it has one, but it doesn’t have primacy. Imagine then the embodiment of the product of the proposed needed education. My interpretation is that the successful 4 A star A Level student of tomorrow should be creatively and emotionally intelligent, with technical expertise and skill, entrepreneurial and switched on to real world problems: a sentient innovation machine, holding hands with the rest of the world. I implicitly link here to the concept of the 4th Industrial Revolution put forth by Schwab[vi].

My skeptical side doesn’t yet allow me to fully embrace this concept. It doesn’t sound fully convincing. It feels a bit too science fiction, abstracted from the gothic industrial realities of the inequality ridden world we currently inhabit. However, Schwab explains: “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”[vii]

So if this Fourth Industrial Revolution comes to fruition, we should be all be connected through our brains, bodies, gardens, vegetable patches, fridges, cars, computers and mobile phones as part of an Avatar movie style ecosystem. I’m not keen on that vision to be honest, are you? My cynical side imagines a dystopian interpretation, where the inequalities inherited by the system prevail, and a Borg like infrastructure takes advantage of talent for its own benefit – the rich and powerful still get more rich and powerful, and those at the bottom of the inequality heap just get used and abused for their ideas. Cogs in the machinealbeit more sophisticated cogs and a more sophisticated machine.

Schwab goes on to describe how this world of interconnectedness is taking shape: “Already, artificial intelligence is all around us, from self-driving cars and drones to virtual assistants and software that translate or invest. Impressive progress has been made in AI in recent years, driven by exponential increases in computing power and by the availability of vast amounts of data, from software used to discover new drugs to algorithms used to predict our cultural interests. Digital fabrication technologies, meanwhile, are interacting with the biological world on a daily basis. Engineers, designers, and architects are combining computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, and synthetic biology to pioneer a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and even the buildings we inhabit.

The Luddite in me wants to say stop. But can we? Is it too late? Is everything already too connected? Can we unplug and maintain cerebral independence, or is being part of the matrix the only way we will eventually be able to breathe? Or, is our only advantage to not just work hard with the creative side of the arts, but to fight back with the strength of the philosophical?

When the industrial revolution took place that we all know and love from our school history lessons, romantic poets, artists and philosophers fought back by placing an emphasis on the uncontrollable forces of nature – showing how minute and powerless humankind really is, and reminding us of the magnificent beauty of the thing that the industrial revolution was destroying. At the same time philosophers such as Karl Marx and Durkheim stepped us and gave us insights into the machinations of the workings of power and people behind this monumental takeover. In the same way, I’d argue that liberal arts, humanistic education is vital now to providing intellectual education and freedom of thought, as one way of still maintaining independence from the evolving Borg. In fact it might be the only way.

They might be able to matrix our bodies, but can they take our souls and minds? I conclude with a song: Manic Street Preachers, “If you tolerate this, then your children will be next”:

Say yes to STEM and STEAM – but keep the intellectual edge. Empower our children with intellectualism. Insist on a curriculum with liberal arts, philosophy and independent humanism as well.









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