Undercutting The Arts Doesn’t Make STEM Stand Any Taller


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Outside view of the new SET building

The student physicist scribbles anatomically incorrect hearts and iambic pentameter on the margins of a metamaterials article she has consulted after her fourth cup of coffee and the last granules of brainwashed devotion have lost their edge.

For the moment, the creativity sulking in exile amidst her neurons will be let alone, perhaps to find some emotional ibuprofen, or check itself for injuries. It has been a long year of house arrest for my artistic inclination, theatrical expression and the voice inside my head that whispered, “take a humanities course” during class registrations.

If fault should be placed, it is solely my own, but perhaps not without subconscious accomplice, given I am far from alone. For most within the academic sphere and beyond, the STEM initiative has been the water we swim in for some time now. Seminars, Hour of Code, graduation requirement modifications and every STEM student’s favorite; glossy pamphlets adorned with well rested engineers, bright eyed chemists holding beakers in midair while pouring, and groups of students all pointing to the same spot on a screen, doing something convincingly technical. The United States is lagging in science and tech. And an easy conscience, competition does not make. So we have a generation mind numbingly endoctrinced with the importance of mathematics and science, tempted with the promise of an (eventual) six figure salary, the federal government singing the young ones to sleep with recycled propaganda; “Do it for your country!”,”Do it for your
gender!”, “For your heritage, for pride!”. Meanwhile, the arts sit patiently in the corner mostly neglected, all underfunded, only valid if sandwiched within the agenda, as in STEAM. If you say “Humanities” to a primary school student, I think they’re just instructed to say “Bless you”.

And yet amidst this CVS receipt of complaints, I am forever in awe of the innovation and hope that it brings. For each outreached arm, there are students reaching back with fresh perspective, ambition and pluck. As an Hispanic woman and a first generation immigrant, I can personally attest to how many brilliant engineers, scientists and mathematicians the initiative has encouraged from communities and minority groups like mine. So perhaps, a touch of optimization is in order.

Creativity and innovation thrive best when organic, as does inspiration. Instead of promoting the arts as a means to be better at math, and using the humanities as a worn punchline in a joke about income, we support them. We call back to the arts from their underfunded recess, and bring humanities out from their tragically devalued cubbyhole.

Though I can not, and won’t, negate the increasing importance of scientific, mathematical and technical fluency, it should have never come at the cost of undercutting all else. Children should never lose sight of the importance of that potential within themselves, nor should they be so limited in where they can take their joys and expression. Let the physics student scribble poetry and draw, but perhaps on new notebooks, not faded margins of that which is their equal joy.