President Obama’s STEM obsession
Published: Monday, February 18, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 18, 2013 00:02
During his State of the Union address, President Obama continued his push of STEM (which stands for science, technology, engineering and math) education.
According to Obama, his administration wants to "reward schools" that "create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future."
Obama believes STEM disciplines are important, which they most definitely are. However, Obama’s monomaniacal obsession with creating jobs for STEM disciplines and training STEM students and teachers is not just a broken record, but one playing a potentially harmful and out-of-touch tune. Science, technology, engineering and math are, in some way, the "disciplines of the future" Obama and other policymakers declare them to be. The world is becoming more global as technology gets more complex, and as progressive technologies are created, more jobs will be created.
However, when Obama claims we are in reach of being "a country that leads the world in educating its people" and "an America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs," the President is ignoring disciplines that help comprise his base, fuel democracy in this country and participate in the type of civic activism necessary for all the change he promised our country.
A degree or career in the fields of history, English, philosophy and other humanities isn’t a fast track to the upper or even middle class that Obama claims should be every citizen’s opportunity, but they are vital, breathing foundations of our country, and they are significant facets of American education and discourse that should be more respected, attended to and funded than they currently are.
President Obama is – relative to someone like Mitt Romney who wanted to cut funding for both the NEA and PBS – a "humanities" president. He wrote poetry for Occidental College’s undergraduate literary journal, claims Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Gilead" as a favorite book and has worked diligently to alleviate National Endowment for the Arts cuts, instead proposing a 5.5 percent increase in the 2013 budget.
At the 2011 National Medals of Arts and Humanities Ceremony, Obama quoted both Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and said "The arts and the humanities do not just reflect America," but "they shape America."
Yet his recent rhetoric doesn’t back his projected belief in the arts.
President Obama invoked the memory of "Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall" in his inaugural address – but how is America supposed to remember these happenings and the changes that took place there without an emphasis on history?
He consistently speaks about progress, peace and equality – but how are Americans supposed to access and enact these ideals without a vibrant awareness of literature and philosophy?
Science, technology, engineering and math are vital disciplines in the United States of America. West Virginia University is a thriving example of STEM educations being fostered, leading to incredible progress and new jobs for our nation.
But the STEM disciplines aren’t everything.
To be a nation that "accepts certain obligations to one another and to future generations" and to be "the authors of the next great chapter in our American story" like Obama called for in his State of the Union, we need roots and leaves, too.
We need to know where we came from and have the ability to reflect on and analyze our past so we don’t make the same errors again.
We need to know how we can make better choices building in the future, not just high-speed railroads or computer programs, but schools, relationships and ideas. These sorts of postures and skills come from the humanities – an American tradition that needs to be better and more healthfully curated in our schools and in political rhetoric.
I hope President Obama’s neglect of the humanities in his public speaking isn’t evidence of a more harrowing problem. In a recent New Yorker post, artist Teju Cole raises questions about Obama’s drone-killing policies and asks, "How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the president he became?"
The humanities have the ability to shape American philosophy and action. President Obama needs to pick up the novels on his bookshelf, give them a re-read and reassess both his choices with drones and his relationship with disciplines that have helped make America great.
Not every problem can be solved by a formula or calculation. America needs to cultivate STEM, but support and nurture other fields, too.