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Putting the AH! in STEAHM

Matthew Dunn

The Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences just released their report, The Heart of the Matter.  Does this have anything to do with complex subjects, visual communications, technology, business, and all that stuff?  Yes - everything.

"At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion—we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be—our sense of what makes America great."

I serve on an external board for the College of Sciences and Technology at Western Washington University.  Every third sentence someone says "STEM Education" (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).   My rejoinder is "STEAHM Education" - do let's please leave the Arts and Humanities in the equation.

hss_report.pdf (page 35 of 92).png

As an "arts person" it's easy to come up with the broad emotional and cultural reasons; they seem obvious.  But then I put that aside, and put on my business hat.  Is there really a business justification to arts and humanities education? My response would be, the very fact that our business is viable is evidence of the need for, and value of, putting the AH! in STEAHM.   

"Ah!  I get it!"  The utterance is self-defining, and the meaning critical.  The amount of data in the world is rising dramatically; the amount of information, less so but likewise. Discerning the knowledge in all that information is a humanities challenge. If we need a shared understanding to do our jobs - build a pyramid, launch a rocket, or whatever - we're not going to get that shared understanding by staring at our hard disks.  We need to be literate ("-iterate" - it's not just a question of language any more) enough in our field to create and consume the communications that enable understanding.

Beyond 'grasping the point someone else is making' is knowledge creation - making your own points.  There, again, the AH! dimensions of education are vital.  Invention, innovation, research, discovery - these are creative acts of the mind.  The AH! disciplines foster the mindset and toolset - and the teamwork, I think - that make for more and better knowledge creation, no matter the field. I'm not saying there's no creativity in science education - actually, quite the opposite. But at their best, arts and humanities foster playing with boundaries, rather than within, and that makes all the difference.

The roster of people involved in this report was stunning - YoYo Ma, John Lithgow, Emmylou Harris, Ken Burns, David Brooks, David Souter, John Warnock (Chairman of Adobe), James McNerny (Chairman/President/CEO of Boeing) - it's really quite something. These are serious people, making a serious point. 

CP Snow codified the science/humanities rift in The Two Cultures, over fifty years ago.  It's been critiqued - I think with some justification - yet the push for STEM rumbles of that rift re-opening.  It's heartening to see a national-level endorsement of the vital, competitive value of maintaining and upgrading the educational bridges that cross it.  

 --md