Saving humanities from the STEM promised land

Education and labour policy makers, tech-believers and business followers should realise that for a graduate ‘entering the job market’ is not about one’s first job. On the contrary, it is preparing to manage a very extensive career, holding several occupations and even different professions (with diverse contract typologies and affiliations) throughout one’s life – a much longer life than for previous generations. And working is not only being productive based on a technological skill-set acquisition and a machine-learning mindset, it is also knowing how to interact and establish social relationships and cultural bonds with others and with one’s surroundings, which is what the Humanities dimension and discipline guarantee by default.

The truth is that STEM subjects are too frequently presented as the only 21st Century ‘rational’ option to future university students; any other option is deemed to be “unserviceable” for the so called “real life” (whatever this might mean). To which we must add that there are, of course, tech and start-up companies of renown who are proud of the public recruiting message they recently send to the world over: they no longer require academic degrees to qualify for some of their jobs, since – say the employers – new hires will be able to self-train and learn on the job. Frankly speaking, in the face of all of this, any individual who alone and happily decides to go down the Humanities’ path is a hero.

We honestly should all stop thinking -in pure market terms- of higher education as a utility, and of BAs as commodities. If we hold them to be mere temporary goods, it will be difficult to ensure that they are held to be relevant and of lasting meaning to the individual and to society in general. If we take this materialistic premise to the extreme, and consider an off-site student as a digital user to be satisfied, a mere anonymous datum to be administered by an automated system, we will doubtless be shearing the learning journey of its creative, enjoyable and spontaneous magic, of the inspired elements that allow for the imagination and thinking to flourish, encouraging students and faculty to jointly approach knowledge through human experience on any matter at hand.

In the face of the STEMs, we see how history, philosophy, literature, languages and art in any shape or form, are much more than mere diplomas to be accumulated to get a job. They are knowledge to be gathered forever for one’s personal life as well. Education is knowledge accrued, of tremendous relevance in the construct of the personality. EdTech by itself doubtless enhances teaching and assists with learning (SMILE at Stanford University is an excellent example), but it is no substitute for the mission of fostering reasoning, producing knowledge, elaborating research and providing student counselling achieved by true education. Moreover, personal skills are not IT applications of programmes to be reset, deleted or undone, depending on the capabilities needed for whatever job position. Furthermore, the social skills, of growing importance in the labour market, are not always inherently and precisely linked to STEM-based skills, as proven by the research carried out by Harvard University’s Professor David Deming.

It might sound great, as a slogan. But mentally it is much of a stretch to comply with the STEM mantra that instructs us to “learn, unlearn and relearn.” Learning and living experiences are added, not deleted. We should replace the economic and functional rationale of market trends and the hyper-quoted “exponential growth curve,” with a different perspective, one that seeks thinking and cogitating over the longer stretch. We need to be ambitious, sensitive with regards the humane, intellectually motivated and far-reaching with regards solidarity. We should be ready to respond favorably to questions placed by Bertrand Russell almost a Century ago (On Education, 1926), regarding what manner of individuals, citizens, employees, and society we want – before aiming to educate them one way or another.

As a slightly radical example: would crime and violence in schools or on university campus be better avoided by the use of STEM-based dissuasive biometric scanning detectors or by the adoption of human, cultural, civic and moral principles and values? Some STEM preachers in Sillicon Valley seem to have already learnt the lesson well: every morning they drive their own children to schools of the Waldorf and Montessori methodology, in which technological interaction is introduced at a very late stage. A much bigger effort than just introducing the “A” of Arts into the “STEM” acronym to turn it into “STEAM” is needed if we want to save humanities from the overpowering STEM-job promise land.

This is a guest blog kindly contributed by Dr. Samuel Martín-Barbero, Vice-Chancellor at the University Camilo José Cela (Madrid, Spain).


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