Schools have been urged in recent years to shove aside other subjects in favor of STEM. There has already been a backlash against this educational trend, of course, from the passionate advocates of art, music, and theater, who saw their subjects sidelined in a rush to STEM. This prompted a hasty rewriting of the acronym, giving us STEAM (A for Arts, in the American sense).
I suggest that, in that case, we might as well add the humanities (English, history, and philosophy) which gives us SHTEAM or, to put it in more familiar language, education.
Wondering if SHTEAM is an initial too far? MIT requires its students to take humanities classes every semester. Unlike too many school administrators, MIT and other reputable tech schools understand that a single-minded focus on STEM is counter-productive and potentially disastrous: You cannot understand science without learning to think historically, since science changes over time, and the best book to understand that is historian Thomas Kuhn's classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Training future tech leaders without an education in ethics via history, English, and philosophy is a disturbing prospect in an age in which we move toward the ability to clone humans, and to replace their work with that of machines, while failing to provide for their continued ability to make a living, and a life.
To that end . . .
The War to End War, my newest program, available in various versions for 5th through 12th grades, is a riff on the meaning of World War One. It is not only as close to an actual college lecture as I deliver in schools, but rapidly becoming my most popular program.
Why? Because it's incredibly relevant, despite a century having passed. A historian is not an antiquarian: We're not just obsessed with all things old and past. We teach with one eye on the concerns of the present, and one of the concerns I address in this program is the unintended consequences of a mindless rush to adopt new technologies.
Oh, sure, I talk about how technological innovation made Britain the dominant power of the Victorian era. I also show students the cool gadgets of 1914, including a candlestick phone and a 3D stereoscope (an early Viewmaster, which to kids and teens is itself an antique).
But I also show that technology went wrong for the people of the early 20th century, and that the horrifying numbers of casualties of World War I is proof.
I'm not pandering to curriculum by discussing STEM in The War to End War. Rather, I am urging everyone to beware of the unthinking STEM bandwagon. An obsession with STEM encourages public school students to develop a narrow careerist focus: If the job for which you have trained vanishes, what then? I asked the high schoolers with whom I spoke this week. I asked what their interests were, and they looked at me in wonderment. "Do you mean what we plan to do for a career?" one young man asked. I assured him that if I had meant that, I would have said so. What I hoped to hear were what they cared about, their passions, some indication of their visions beyond their anticipated future jobs. Rest assured, students in America's elite prep schools are encouraged to have a broad view of life and education. There is no rush to replace books with Lego in their libraries. Our public school students deserve no less. And the arts and humanities are indispensable to that broad view.
As I show in The War to End War, the 20th century is one long cautionary tale. The Titanic (launched and sunk two years before World War I) and the machine guns and howitzers that made possible the deaths of 17 million (and wounding of millions more) in four short years should cause all of us to think twice before eagerly embracing an all-STEM, value-free future.
Does America need better science and tech education? Absolutely. Should that improvement be at the expense of improved education in the arts and humanities? Absolutely not. Not STEM. Not just STEAM. Think SHTEAM. Think Education.
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com