STEMming the Tide
Christopher Gayford

STEMming the Tide


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STEMming The Tide

- How to Stop Schools and Universities From Being Swamped by Scientism


Education in the U.K. is under attack. Driven from the very top of government, almost any subject outside a narrow band designated STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is being thrown on a latter-day Bonfire of the Vanities. Savonarola managed to whip the citizens of 15th Century Florence into a state of  mass hysteria and for a few months, to purge themselves of secular art and culture. The U.K. government is gripped by the same destructive urge, obsessed by the Chimera that ‘Global Britain’ needs to reinvent itself on the lines of South Korea. They fail to see that in as much as the U.K. is in any sense global, it's largely because of our culture. We certainly punch above our weight in the sciences, but a wide range of data supports the view that we actually train more than enough people in STEM subjects, with the exception of medicine. 

Gayford argues in this polemic that priorities in education need changing. STEM has its place, but it should be subordinate to subjects which develop students’ capacity for complex thinking, subjects which necessarily involve multi-tasking, the simultaneous assimilation of several data streams. These subjects, SHLAM (sport, history, languages, art and music) promote complexity in a way which spills over into STEM. The best scientists acknowledge that innovation relies on creativity; Einstein stated that his breakthroughs in science could not have been accomplished without his extensive musical training. 

The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.



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The Argument


The first and wisest of them all profess’d to know this only,

That he nothing knew.

 - John Milton Book IV Paradise Regain’d


Some conversations should never end. Education is one such conversation. The idea that a school or university can produce leavers and graduates who are educated makes it sound as if the process is something that can be finished. It is not. True education leaves us more aware of our own ignorance than our own knowledge. People stepping off any sort of dais, clasping a tube of parchment secured with a red ribbon, grinning at mum and dad in the fifth row, momentarily appalled by a younger sibling’s sartorial ineptitude on this day, of all days, should be filled with an ineffable feeling of the vastness of their own ignorance. Proud of what they've learned, they should simultaneously feel awed by what they've realised they don't know, and passionate to find out more. As the applause rings out, teachers should heave a sigh of relief if they can turn to their colleagues and say: ‘At least I didn't kill a love of learning in that one.’ Perhaps the teaching profession could develop its own version of the Hippocratic Oath.

This book explores an approach to education that focuses on the vast and the ineffable. Ineffable is a useful word, at least it is when I can remember what it means; it's one of those pesky adjectives that I always have to look up (too great or extreme to be described in words btw). It's ironic that I should be trying to use words to describe something that's beyond them, but they're all I have at my disposal. I'm a bad  illustrator, terrible at mime, and although I am a musician, and although music certainly can go beyond words, it's not sufficiently specific for what I have in mind. Words will have to do.  

Education is circumscribed by language and numbers. With the laudable aim of ensuring that school leavers are literate and numerate, English and Maths sit at the centre of the curriculum. Increasingly, this duopoly is being challenged by the new kids on the block, STEM: science, technology, engineering and maths. I’m going to challenge the challenger and consider the possibility of shifting the focus from STEM to sport, the arts and humanities.

The problem with words and numbers is that at school, and possibly even on into tertiary education, they force us to think sequentially, in other words, to link our ideas together, one after another. ‘What's so very wrong with that?’ I hear some of you cry, leaping to the defence of the humble letter and digit. I argue that words and numbers are wonderful, but that they have their limitations as vehicles for thinking. Things that are ineffable, beyond words, and possibly beyond numbers too, are things that require us to perceive several streams of information at the same time. Let's call them complex systems.

One of my favourite illustrations of this process is double catch. Stand about three metres aways from another person, holding a tennis ball in each hand. Count slowly and rhythmically to three, and throw both balls on three aiming to make it as easy as possible for your partner to catch a ball in each hand simultaneously. In order to throw and catch the balls, our minds and bodies have to multitask. It sounds simple, until you try it. Such activities offer a glimpse of how complex systems feel, and at root, this argument is concerned with complexity. My contention is that sport, the arts and humanities, if taught well, offer pupils and students the chance to develop their capacity to deal with complexity because those activities can be used to teach multitasking from an early stage. STEM subjects as currently taught around the world, do not require multitasking, truly complex thinking, until postgraduate level. Consequently, if pupils and students devote too much time to STEM, and not enough time to sport, the arts and humanities, there's a very real danger that they will struggle to manage complexity. The habit of linear rather than parallel thinking will predominate, trammelling their minds rather than steering them to think big.

It could be argued that these contentions are contingent on the quality of teaching. Perhaps the very best teaching of STEM subjects introduces pupils and students to aspects of complexity, and the very worst teaching of sport, the arts and humanities is grimly serial. History can be taught as a stultifying list of facts; music can be a relentless round of technical exercises devoid of either complexity or imagination, but if sport, the arts and humanities are taught well, I propose that they are inherently better suited to enable pupils and students to engage with complexity. In part, and certainly when it comes to very young children, this is because language, music, art and sport are physical activities. Although we often take movement for granted, it's actually astonishingly complex. This is evinced by the fact that the technologies we have so far developed are much better at accomplishing tasks that approximate to human mental activity rather than human physical activity. Artificial Intelligence is developing at an astonishing rate. As proof of that particular pudding, these last two sentences have been written with the aid of AI. I pressed the microphone button on my keyboard, and spoke slowly and clearly; the computer did not make any errors. By contrast, if I were to ask even the most advanced robot to make me a cup of tea, it would probably agree, graciously, and then trip over the extension lead that's snaking around the edge of my sofa.

If education is one of the most important ways in which a society can offer equality of opportunity to all its citizens, then it’s vital to ensure that every youngster has access to an education rich in the sort of learning that develops the capacity to engage with complexity. Independent schools in the U.S., the U.K. and the rest of the Anglosphere have long known, intuitively, that these ‘extra’ subjects matter, and consequently plough time, money and effort into activities seen as optional by many other schools. Although it would be difficult to prove, the rich diversity of provision in sport, the arts and humanities in independent schools might be one reason why their pupils are disproportionately successful. If the U.S. and the U.K. are to level-up, if the opportunity to live a good life is to be made available to everyone, then both countries need a revolution in education.

I'd even argue that democracy itself needs questioning with regard to education. To put it brutally, if democracy is a system of government by the people, for the people, what happens if we, the people, can't grasp the myriad complexities involved in deciding what to do for the best? For those of us who assume that there's no other option other than to muddle along as usual, China is providing a sharp counter-narrative. Hugely ambitious and immensely hardworking, China has transformed itself over the last half century. The improvements in the standard of living of her citizens are astounding. How long will it be before the huge numbers of people trapped at the bottom in countries like France, the U.K. and U.S., and throughout the countries of Central and South America start to yearn for similar improvements, even if such improvements come at a democratic cost? Will they choose to starve in freedom or feast in chains?

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