STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) seems to get all of the attention paid to education these days. These subjects are important, of course, and I applaud efforts to improve the teaching and learning of STEM which is critical to our future economy and world competitiveness. However, such efforts cannot be at the expense of the humanities, history in particular, if we are to feel secure in the future of democracy, protected by thoughtful and engaged citizens.
The evening before the White House medal ceremony, I attended a black-tie dinner in celebration of the arts and humanities. Actor John Lithgow was the guest speaker. In his speech he offers a wonderful metaphor:
“Picture a flower — a big bright flower in full bloom. The flower’s stem is….well, STEM! Science, technology, engineering, and math. It is the superstructure, the infrastructure, the support system of the flower itself. And the arts and humanities? Why, they’re the blossom of course — the source of the flower’s beauty, fragrance, and identity, the visible mark of its health, and the wherewithal for the flower to reproduce itself. The stem is functional, strong, and essential. But pare away the blossom and the stem has no purpose, no function, no value. In time it will wither and die. It cannot survive the loss.”
An article in The Washington Post presents an excellent rationale for the humanities: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/why-stem-is-not-enough-and-we-still-need-the-humanities/2012/03/04/gIQAniScrR_blog.html.
And in an article in the Wall Street Journal on September 21, 2011, Norm Augustine, former undersecretary of the Army and retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin (and someone who frequently talks about the importance of STEM), points out how learning history can help young people develop important skills such as critical thinking, research and communication. He goes on:
“…students are not only failing to comprehend our nation’s story and that of our world, but also failing to develop skills that are crucial to employment across sectors. Having traveled in 109 countries in this global economy, I have developed a considerable appreciation for the importance of knowing a country’s history and politics.”
How much more needs to be said to convince policy makers, school administrators, etc. of the need for quality history education?
After the medals ceremony at the White House, I had a chance to share a few thoughts with President and Mrs. Obama. “You know, Mr. President,” I said, “history education is just as important as STEM.” They responded that history is Malia’s favorite subject.
I know they heard me. I know that principals and superintendents hear me when I talk about history instruction. I know that members of Congress hear when people, including some of their own members, stress how crucial the humanities our to developing well-rounded citizens…
The question is, “Is anybody listening?”