Oh, Ronald Reagan. In 1983 his administration presented A Nation at Risk, a report that would forever change the game in American education.
In short, it claimed we had everything to fear. We were falling behind. Our teachers weren’t good enough.
And so began our collective sprint to a finish line where all children succeed, where domination in math and science would be as natural as breathing. To achieve these goals, however, we had to shed the excess – the nonessential.
And, just like that, the STEM virus began.
I don’t know about you, but I am frankly sick of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). As an educator, I have seen its identity shift from being buzzworthy to being buzzkill. Just like the breast cancer pinkwashing that finds each of us every October, the American public has been exploited in the promotion of a powerful idea: A focus on STEM, at all costs, will save us.
I remember the first time I internalized the changing landscape of education. The year was 2012, and I was slated to teach English and biology to high school students in California. Our literature textbooks, designed around Common Core, were brand new. With just one peek, my worst fears were realized. Not a single work of literature was featured in its entirety. I’m pretty sure Shakespeare rolled over in his grave.
This is what the arts are coming to, I remember thinking to myself.
Over the last week, I have been pondering my own academic journey. In my undergraduate years, I chose liberal arts over science. After a short stint in public education, however, I desired balance in my training and poured myself into infectious disease epidemiology graduate studies. After all, didn’t a STEM path promise jobs?
In the months following graduation, life offered a resounding response: No. It didn’t matter that I had studied statistics, virology, or psychology – my foray into STEM, as it turns out, had entitled me to nothing.
In the years to come, however, resentment gave way to peace. I figured out how to use my “ridiculous” English language and literature background to navigate the professional world. Communication skills build relationships. Strong writing can magnify your strengths. And all those silly stories I read? They taught me how to penetrate even the coldest of souls.
And – to my great relief – I have secured a job that fosters my passion for writing AND scientific inquiry. Perhaps, too, my students will see that we need not think of success as a linear road paved only by STEM.
But, the truth is, my husband and I get to cheat the system. Our multidisciplinary journeys have largely silenced the STEM-at-all-costs attitude that plagues many parents. And so – regardless of what our children’s schools value – what they get at home will be consistent: there is a place for the arts, for music, for the human experience.
And, let’s be honest, couldn’t the world use a little more creativity?