[This is the addended transcript of my regular KVMR commentary aired on 1 August 2014.]
Listeners to these commentaries are aware of how important America’s STEM workforce will be to the future of our country and our quality of life. Recall that STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. Preparing for a STEM career is hard, and not everyone is qualified to do so. That is a prime reason why so many of our youth seek easier educational paths into adulthood and the nation’s workforce.
With the longstanding decline of our students’ science and math rankings, recently more of our politicians and local civic leaders have come to realize the importance of offering solid STEM curricula in our K-12 schools. At the same time education budgets have gotten tighter for a number of other reasons we have covered before and will visit again. But the bottom line is that there have had to be significant reductions in courses covering non-mainstream subjects such as in civics, the arts, and humanities, in addition to the elimination of many non-academic school programs such as certain sports and special interest clubs. Courses in the graphic and performing arts have been among the hardest hit in such budget cuts.
In the meantime, most school districts have not yet set up a stable curriculum that adequately delivers education in the STEM subjects. Doing this has also been delayed with the recent adoption of the controversial Common Core standards promoted by the federal government. In fact, Common Core now puts a hitch into STEM education by essentially shifting pre-calculus and calculus subjects into college remedial courses for STEM majors.
With all these important things going on, we suddenly see a new initiative from the progressive Left to revive arts education in our public high schools through a specious attempt to attract additional funding from established STEM programs. This is done by injecting ‘Arts’ as a necessary and integral part of a complete STEM education – the new acronym then becomes STEAM.
After studying Dr Dayton’s paper and perusing her professional background, let me go out on a fairly short and stout limb to assert that the lady knows next to nothing about real creativity and innovation as has long been practiced in the STEM professions. I say this as a career professional in science and engineering, who has spent his life on the bleeding edge of research and development, while also educating the next generation of students to enter these professions.
There is no comparison between the kinds of creative and innovative skills required to succeed at the STEM frontiers of human knowledge, and what passes for creativity and innovation in the arts. And such differentiation is literally impossible to communicate to people not versed in the mathematically based disciplines.
Let me be clear. I am not denigrating the arts. I too take great pleasure in playing instruments, singing, going to concerts and museums. The arts have always had an important and unique place in human affairs, especially in expressing, experiencing, and communicating emotions and feelings. As such, the arts should be studied and pursued on their own merits, and definitely not used to dilute or divert STEM education which for centuries has produced the most creative and innovative humans to walk this earth.
This time I leave you as Dr Rebane, PhD, and I also expand this and related themes on georgerebane.com where the addended transcript of this commentary is posted with relevant links, and where such issues are debated extensively. However my views are not necessarily shared by KVMR. Thank you for listening.
[Addendum] I wanted to expand on the creativity and innovation notions that form the basis for integrating Arts into STEM curricula. Here are some salient points –
1. The greatest error in the STEAM argument is that incorporating Arts is somehow a causal precursor or even a necessary catalyst to enable STEM workers to be innovative and creative.
2. The real situation, demonstrated daily and over the ages, is that STEM careers self-select bright people, people who have the appropriate cultural, character, and genetic attributes/backgrounds that enable their successful study and subsequent work habits. These same people often find an ‘extra-curricular outlet’ in the Arts that has a distinct motivation from their work in STEM. People outside of STEM often confuse correlation and causation, themselves succumbing to such arguments, and then going on to confuse others of similar backgrounds.
3. Creativity and innovation in the Arts consists primarily of the rearrangement of existing and established symbols, materials, paradigms, processes, formalisms, … that result in work products for which their appreciation and/or beauty ‘lie in the eye of the beholder’. Professionals in STEM research and development can only offer courteous smiles when someone outside the community refers to the ‘artsy-fartsy’ crowd as being the ‘creative types’ – an established aphorism of common wisdom. But they know not of what they speak.
4. Creativity and innovation in STEM R&D lies in the solution to realworld problems that previously had no solution, or quite often to problems that no one had even formulated. Research and development in these fields pushes back the frontiers of human knowledge in all domains from the quantum scale to the cosmological, and everywhere in between. And the value of their work products affects everything from how we live to how we think and talk about ourselves and our world/universe. In short, their work continually redefines humanity and its place/role in ‘the world’. And the beauty of their work lies in the eyes of its beholders only to the extent that such beholders are able to comprehend. Today that fraction of humanity is miniscule.
5. The natural habitat of STEM workers has always been ‘outside the box’. Although we recognize the contribution of technicians, who serve us mostly through their application of established procedures and protocols, even they have to show unusual powers of discovery and reasoning based on their ability to create and innovate. Unfortunately, today theirs are the STEM jobs most quickly overtaken by intelligent machines.
6. For millennia, art and its appreciation have been discretionary enterprises in human society. Art has bloomed in advanced societies only to the extent that it has been subsidized by government or supported by its wealthier classes. Art is an enterprise of fickle fashion. No one knows what offered as art will ‘stick’ or become classical (i.e. endure with time). Appreciated art is therefore affordable in places where wealth is acquired through an excess of productivity or concentrated through forced tribute. Un(der)appreciated art must seek sustenance through the latter. Attempting to hitch Art’s fortunes to the STEM star gives evidence of this.
Dr James Catterall, PhD - Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art (2009) - is one of the nation’s leading researchers of how Arts education impacts education overall, especially for our less advantaged youth. His quarter century of involvement and leadership in the field is known from the halls of Congress down to the school districts of Kentucky and Tennessee. I found it remarkable that Dr Dayton overlooked this prominent and much published professor emeritus when doing the literature research that formed the basis for her recent report (cited above).