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Challenging the STEM orthodoxy

The Minister for Education has delivered a speech at Queenwood's Balmoral Lecture Series, where thought leaders are encouraged to provoke critical thinking and debate.

Introduction

Throughout history, periods of intellectual and technological revolution have shared a pedagogical commonality: their education systems have all been expansive rather than reductive – valuing generalist, multidisciplinary knowledge over the teaching of specific vocational skills.

Whether we are talking about the Ancient Athenian concept of Paideia, the humanism of the Renaissance, the universalism of the Enlightenment, or the classicism of the industrial revolution – civilizational progress is underpinned by a systemic understanding of the symbiotic relationship between the arts and the sciences.

Indeed, the word technology has its etymological roots in the ancient Greek word for art – techne.

Yet the previously interdependent relationship between the arts and the sciences is now under threat.

From government ministers to journalists – from industry CEO’s to senior public servants – people of influence are piling in to denounce the value of philosophy, the arts, humanities and the social sciences – insisting that only by bowing before the altar of STEM will today’s students be adequately equipped to thrive in the 21st century.

Indeed, accepting that an almost singular pedagogic focus on STEM is necessary for Australia to remain globally competitive has become something of an orthodoxy.

Yet orthodoxies in education are dangerous. Successful education systems are built upon constant critical evaluation of norms.

Without this critical evaluation the system ossifies, becoming an echo chamber of the self-righteous – its occupants patting themselves on the back whilst blinkered to the evolution of more dynamic systems elsewhere.

So today I would like us to challenge the dominance of the STEM orthodoxy in Australian education.

This is not to say that I don’t believe science and maths to be crucially important. Of course they are.

In a world that is increasingly mechanised and digitised, it is important to acknowledge the critical need for students to be numerate, and to have a comprehensive understanding of the hard sciences.

But STEM as a concept has become a buzzword.

It has become an educational fad that places academic disciplines into silos – pitting the sciences against the arts in a self-defeating zero-sum game of intellectual snobbery.

The idea that STEM is somehow superior to the arts seems to be everywhere. Whether it is a facetious “would you like fries with that” joke about the value of an arts degree, or whether it is a person of influence claiming that you are doomed to a life of underemployment unless you study STEM, it appears that devotees of scientism have reduced education to an assessment of whether or not you can get a job in Silicon Valley.

Of course, the truth is that the STEM and arts are not dichotomous.

Knowledge, at its core, is multi-disciplinary. You cannot be an exceptional scientist without an appreciation of history, philosophy, and sociology – just as you cannot be an exceptional philosopher without an appreciation of the sciences.

Examples of the interdependency between philosophy and science are everywhere.

Albert Einstein’s philosophical thought experiments made Cassini possible. Aristotle’s logic is the basis for computer science. And philosophical work on the mind-body dualism – stemming all the way back to Plato – set the epistemic stage for the emergence of neuropsychology.

Equally, the most successful tech companies are not simply those that build the fastest computer chips. They are those that understand the complex interplay between technology and society.

When discussing Apple’s success, Steve Jobs said that “it is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it is technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities which yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg insists that Facebook’s continuing development is informed as much by psychology and sociology as it is by programming.

Yet it is this very appreciation of the humanities we are now told to disregard.

Part 1: the problem of reductionism

Now at this stage I feel it important to note that in highlighting the mistake of prioritising STEM over other disciplines, I am in no way denigrating the passion that scientists have for their craft.

Nor am I suggesting that the solution to climate change, the next medical breakthrough or the newest satellite guidance system will come from a philosopher.

I am simply stating that the idea our education system must be structured to preference STEM at the expense of the arts is ludicrous.

The focus on one does not mean a lack of focus on the other – and this bizarre insistence that the arts must be subordinate to STEM will, if we are not careful, have serious repercussions for our education system and the values of our society.

One of the most significant of these repercussions concerns the propensity for disciples of STEM to apply the ontological reductionism of the scientific method to education more broadly.

Take physics for example. Physics assumes that if we can understand reality at a quantum level, then we should be able to explain everything else – from atoms and cells, to the biosphere, to planets, solar systems and galaxies.

I have no argument with this type of reductionism – so long as it remains in the world of physics.

But when this reductionist logic is applied holistically to education it becomes misguided.

It stops being ontological in nature, and becomes epistemological.

It assumes that all knowledge – whether musical, artistic, psychological, political, philosophical or sociological – can be reduced to the natural sciences.

It assumes that only maths and science can reveal objective truth – thus rendering all qualitative and relational forms of knowledge obsolete.

Take, for example, visual art. There is a great deal of literature out there attempting to explain both its existence, and why it appeals to us through the lens of evolutionary biology.

We are told by academics such as Dahlia Zaidel that we like certain types of patterns, symmetrical figures and complex repetitions because our brains are hardwired that way.

Yet these sorts of explanations undervalue the impact that history and culture have on the creation and consumption of art.

Picasso’s cubism is not about symmetry, for instance; it is about breaking symmetry.

Similarly, despite the ease at which mathematicians claim that music is simply a sonic expression of the Fibonacci sequence, it is impossible to overlook the role of romanticism in the composition of the expansive orchestral music of the 18th century.

And it is not just music and art that are targets of STEM reductionists. Thinkers with a predisposition towards scientism – starting with Charles Darwin himself – are quick to inform us that metaphysical concepts such as morality originate not from the philosophic advancement of civilization, nor from the creation of robust legal systems that accommodate the breadth of human behaviour, nor from spiritual enlightenment – but from our biological roots.

In one fell swoop we are told to disregard the work of Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes as subjective and irrelevant musings about issues that can be explained objectively and dispassionately through science.

Our moral sense, philosophical Darwinists argue, simply originated in the context of social life as intelligent primates.

This is true at a basic level. But it is a colossal stretch to link instinctive primate behaviour to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, or the social contract variously conceived by Thomas Hobbes, John Lock, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Ultimately, STEM seeks to dehumanise education – reducing it to an equation of inputs and outputs. Yet excellence has always been most evident when education is at its most personal.

Even today, firms who target the highest performing graduates such as McKinsey, focus not on what degree is studied, but rather on a person’s ability to use generalist knowledge to solve complex problems.

Likewise, the academic ethos of our leading universities is less and less about subject specificity, and more and more about integrated learning. Indeed, even UTS – our largest technology oriented university, basis its learning model around ‘multi-faceted modes of practice oriented education’ that stress the importance of multidisciplinearity.

To paraphrase a cultural historian, Richard Tarnas, the great irony in attempting to dispassionately and mathematically assess our world, is that it is just when we believes we have most fully purified ourselves from any anthropomorphic projections, when we actively construe the world as unconscious, mechanistic, and impersonal – it is just then that the world is most completely a selective construct of our mind.

Part 2: The commodification of education

A second repercussion from the sustained push to preference STEM in our schools and universities is the inclination to commoditise education, conceptualising it as a product – rather than a process.

When asked why an education system should preference STEM above all other subjects, a frequent response is that the overwhelming majority of jobs in the future will be technology related. If one wants to use education to find gainful employment, one must therefore study STEM.

This assumption is problematic on a number of levels.

Firstly, as people navigate an increasingly technical, and impersonal world – it will actually be relational jobs that will become the most important.

Evidence already suggests that if you are a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, a psychologist, a counsellor, or even a consultant – you can rest easy knowing that there will be an unprecedented surge in demand for your services.

In spite of you not being a scientist, engineer, or tech start-up guru, you will be needed more than you ever have been before.

History is littered with futurists mistakenly claiming that technology will eliminate employment opportunity.

In the Depression-beset 1930s, we were repeatedly warned that robots would decimate factory jobs. John Maynard Keynes, no less, forecast that technological progress might allow a 15-hour workweek and abundant leisure by 2030.

In 20 years’ time, the current predictions that all non-STEM jobs will have disappeared will no doubt look equally preposterous.

Assuming that STEM must be front and centre of an education system to boost job prospects – in addition to being erroneous – also fundamentally misunderstands the point of education.

Education is not simply about getting a job. Our educational institutions exist primarily to help educate the next generation to build a more just and more engaged society.

They exist to provide students with higher-order skills that are flexible and adaptable to a changing world.

We should be careful not to reduce the value of a school education or a university degree to an assessment on whether it prepares a student for one specific job.

If we do this – education simply becomes a product that is packaged and sold to a consumer so that the consumer can then use said product to find employment.

As John Adams astutely noted, “there are two types of education…One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.” A good education system manages to do both.

An education system conceived by STEM evangelists only does the former.

Too frequently, those calling for a systemic focus on STEM take a fordist view of education.  They silo education into segments and then expect each segment to function in isolation – churning out students to serve a specific portion of society.

Yet we live in a post-fordist world. Education is not an assembly line – where knowledge is built into a finished product that can then be used as needed. It happens over the course of a lifetime.

We must move away from a siloed approach to education and must instead begin to see one’s educational journey as a teleological progression from 0 to100.

Learning never stops – and schools and universities are simply instruments to expedite this process.

It is a fact that 8 million Australian students will leave school between 2018 and 2040. These students will face profound challenges in a world that is growing exponentially more complex.

Given the speed at which the world is changing it is essential that we have a clear understanding of what the purpose of contemporary education is.

While it was common for those in previous generations to work only two or three jobs over 30 years, the children that we are educating today will likely work 10 to 20 jobs over 60 years.

They will thus need a broad array of skills that only a finely balanced education system will provide. They will need to be mathematicians and scientists, as well as being philosophers, sociologists and historians.

Conclusion

So ladies and gentleman – I hope my speech tonight will generate discussion. I know that some of what I have said is controversial – but, as Education Minister, it is my job to sometimes start robust pedagogical discussions.

The last message I would want you to take away from this evening is that science, technology, engineering and maths do not matter.

On the contrary, they matter a great deal. Some of our most entrenched problems will not be solved without them.

But divisions between university faculties, or between school subjects do not mirror the real world.

The problem with the STEM craze is that it assumes that there is a clear divide between the sciences and everything else.

To see that such a divide is a human construct, one only has to look at the historical evolution of university faculties. Physics, the most secure of the sciences, was once the purview of ‘natural philosophy’. And music was once at home in the faculty of mathematics.

The scope of science and maths has both narrowed and broadened, depending on the time and place and cultural context where it has been practised.

The key to a robust 21st century education system is not the overt preferencing of STEM, but the championing of a true multidisciplinary system, where ideas permeate disciplinary boundaries.

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