Minister for Education says STEM is a fad – we have a problem

There is one way in which Rob Stokes contention that STEM is a fad is correct and that is that his government is doing little more than paying lip service to making STEM education a useful reality. Beyond that the Minister for Education’s recent speech was deeply worrying.

Here’s why Rob Stokes speech is worrying to me. For a start he’s a white, male politician and lawyer who is the product of a private school, talking to an elite private school group. He’s in a deeply privileged position and so for him the idea of a liberal arts education not focused on getting a good job is something he can contemplate with equanimity. For most of the people in the schools he is responsible for that’s simply not the case – getting a job is crucial to their future. And getting one that more than a gig driving on piece-rates, or one that wont be made obsolete by technology ten years later, is pretty damn important.

While I’m on Mr Stokes personal position, it’s more than a little worrying when you hear a graduate of a biblical college saying “….it appears that devotees of scientism have reduced education to an assessment of whether or not you can get a job in Silicon Valley”. Reducing STEM to ‘scientism’ – a term most often used by the deeply religious to equate science to a belief system which has no more objective integrity that any religion –  reveals a concerning scepticism about science. That same antipathy and scepticism underlies the entirety of Stokes’ points.

However, the core issue I take with Rob Stokes position is the idea that STEM subjects somehow see themselves as superior to arts subjects. He said the key to a robust 21st century education system was “not the overt preferencing of STEM” but the championing of a true multidisciplinary system. The built-in assumption that is there is a level playing field for subjects that the STEM subjects are trying to push above – that’s not the case.

The core problem with STEM education in NSW is that it has been under-valued and dumbed-down for decades. If there should be preferencing now, that’s only because we have a problem with STEM education that needs to be addressed. I would argue that all the discussion and focus on STEM education at the moment has the same source – we have a real, current problem that needs to be addressed. That problem is clearly demonstrated not only in international results but, more importantly, by the continuing decline in the numbers of students taking STEM subjects at school.

Stokes is of course right to say that education should be multi-disciplinary. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a STEM advocate who’d disagree. And in a general sense I applaud his line

Education is not simply about getting a job. Our educational institutions exist primarily to help educate the next generation to build a more just and more engaged society.

The problem is that he’s Minister for Education and the education system he oversees does not mirror that philosophy. He runs an educational; system that focuses on marks, on competitive results between schools, and on testing within tight silos. Where’s the HSC exam that tests multi-disciplinary thinking as a pathway to university? So why attack STEM education as if it is the cause of some vocational approach to education that would otherwise not exist? If our education system has a vocational bias it is thanks to years of policy driven through his own government and his Federal counterparts.

Stokes goes on to attribute some Machiavellian agenda to STEM:

Ultimately, STEM seeks to dehumanise education – reducing it to an equation of inputs and outputs. Yet excellence has always been most evident when education is at its most personal.

How on earth does studying maths and science dehumanise education? How does STEM seek anything – who is controlling this STEM agenda, some secret cabal of priests of scientism? I can’t even begin to get my hands around this argument other than to see it as a classic example of a religious attack on science.

If anyone else was delivering this speech it would be interestingly misguided. There’s a distinct under-current of scepticism about science and maths that smacks of religious argument.  There’s the casting of blame and motive where it’s hard to see it existing. And there’s blindly ignoring the reality of our education system. All of this would be interestingly misguided if it were from anyone other than the person responsible for that education system.

Stokes says “I am simply stating that the idea our education system must be structured to preference STEM at the expense of the arts is demonstrably ludicrous.” I say what’s demonstrably ludicrous is our Minister for Education attacking STEM education as if it was a conspiracy. If the Minister for Education cannot see the importance of STEM education then his statement that it is a fad is probably going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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