We need more engineers and scientists. That has become the mantra of promoters of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in education. There is nothing wrong with such a rallying cry, except that investment in STEM education usually comes at the expense of HAS (humanities, arts, and social sciences).
There is no arguing that inadequate science and mathematics education threatens the economic competitiveness of the United States.
It is no less true, however, that the neglect and systematic defunding of education in fields such as history, sociology and art history can have even more damaging repercussions. Damages include the creation of an uninformed citizenry and a concomitant erosion of democracy, and of a workforce unable to understand, communicate, and collaborate with people of different cultures in an increasingly diverse America and globalized world.
This, too, threatens America’s economic competitiveness.
The investment in science and technology, the desire for higher mathematical proficiency among school children, and implementation of programs to increase the number of graduating engineers are important goals but they are not a panacea.
Botanists and geneticists have succeeded at developing pest-resistant, high-yielding food crops but they have not been able to eradicate famine — world hunger is actually on the rise.
The so-called defense industry has created futuristic weaponry that can virtually guarantee victory in the battlefields, but its scientists cannot guarantee the preservation of peace once the smoke and stench of war have dissipated.
And likewise, modern medicine and biotechnology have prolonged people’s lives but cannot assure that those who live longer lead fuller and spiritually richer lives.
No! Scientists and their formulas and machines cannot solve the world’s problems!
We also need the knowledge of social and political scientists to help us figure out how to distribute those high-yielding crops in war-torn Africa.
We need the wisdom of historians to win the peace after winning the war or to prevent wars altogether.
And we need poets, painters, musicians, ballet dancers and clergy to nurture the spirit of those who now lead longer and healthier lives.
STEM without flowers is just a bare stem.
Indeed, we need more humanists and social scientists as canaries in the mines, to warn us about looming dangers of an increasingly technocratic, market-driven and authoritarian system.
And we may soon need them to play the role that a few thousand Irish monks played during the Middle Ages, helping to preserve the knowledge and artistic sensitivities of classical Greece and Rome in the face of barbarism.
The systematic neglect of HAS is far more complex than a simple transfer of education funds during tough economic times from those fields to STEM.
It is partially the result of the growing dominance of corporations which, on the one hand, demand highly-trained scientists, managers and technicians, and on the other, benefit from the existence of a vast pool of workers and consumers educated only to the point of basic functionality. Trends in our education system respond to such corporate demands.
Public school education, particularly in poor districts, has suffered from marginalization of the social sciences and the elimination of arts programs.
In many states, Florida among them, governments are neglecting, if not willingly dismantling, humanities and social science programs while expanding STEM fields.
Public schools in affluent districts, exclusive private schools and elite private colleges, while not immune to the increasing dominance of STEM, have successfully preserved holistic curricula with adequate support for the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
These disparities between public and private institutions point to a dreadful scenario. One in which those who can afford it will enjoy the luxury of a well-rounded quality education, while those who cannot, will be limited to increasingly narrow vocational and technical opportunities.
(Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted as an opinion piece in The Miami Herald.)