There’s quiet, but steady, drumbeat of pushing children and college students into narrow STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, and away from anything that doesn’t contribute to the (narrowly defined) “economy”. The UK Education Secretary said in 2014 that choosing to study arts or humanities could “hold them back for the rest of their lives”. Being trained in both science and engineering, I’m the first to agree that a well-informed scientific and technically literate citizenry is of utmost importance, but it doesn’t follow that we should be just shovelling people into STEM. It’s short-term thinking at it’s worst and is born of the idea that the purpose of education is to train people to contribute to the global neoliberal corporate state, rather than a process of becoming a complete, well-rounded human being.
This idea, or variants of it, surfaces when the conversation turns to the need for children to be “competitive” in the economy of the future, or that college should be run more like business training students for narrow and specialized vocational skills. It is also ignores the fact that even in many STEM fields such as biology, there is currently a glut of highly-trained researchers that cannot find jobs and an intense debate about what to do about it. This is a narrative that trains us to passively accept the status quo, and admits that no meaningful social or economic changes are possible, something that any careful student of the humanities will appreciate is complete nonsense.
In a fascinating 2015 John Peel Lecture (named after the late great British radio broadcaster) musician and producer, Brian Eno, pushes back on this narrow view of the arts as being a side “luxury” to the “main event” of making stuff and money. He reminds us of the absolute necessity of arts, play and imagination to the human experience, and that participation of everybody in the arts are going to be even more important as we become an increasingly global and interdependent culture and civilization. It shouldn’t therefore be viewed solely as a luxury that only “professionals” should be engaging in:
it means everyone – has been generating this huge, fantastic conversation which we call culture. And which somehow keeps us coherent, keeps us together… you might also think well, it sounds pretty important, that job… we need to be thinking about art and culture not as a little add on, a bit of luxury, but as the central thing that we do.
Technological and scientific advances are important and vital to the ongoing health of our technical civilization, to solve problems in the growing of food, creating alternative energy sources and tackling disease, but they can’t help us (in and of themselves) to communicate better, to co-operate, to share, to show empathy to one another. To discover what it means to be human and to keep humanity together: the arts and the humanities can teach us that.