A Menace to Society
”To educate a man in mind
and not in morals
is to educate a menace to society."
- Teddy Roosevelt
This quote comes to mind whenever someone asks if our classical, Catholic school emphasizes STEM.
I love the ingredients of STEM. In my years as a homeschooling mom, I relished my chance to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Each deserves a place in the curriculum, and not only because I personally enjoy them; God intends us to use them to build His kingdom. And still:
Prioritizing STEM in elementary, middle, and high schools is a mistake.
The Sum Is Less Than Its Parts
Consider the downside of “STEM” branding.
—The STEM brand was meant to encourage interdisciplinary learning. It hasn’t played out that way - instead, these disciplines lose their distinct identities and blend into an intimidating blob.
—The STEM brand was meant to generate enthusiasm, but it often causes anxiety. Making it all seem like one thing gives an all-or-nothing feel that is detrimental to less confident students. Have we deterred potential geneticists or nurses by making calculus seem as crucial to that field as advanced biology? An a la carte approach could probably recruit more students to these fields. (This insight comes courtesy of an article by a Harvard biologist and my years in the classroom.)
—When you add two very practical disciplines (TE) to two that could be exercised for the sake of knowledge-without-clear-and-foreknown-applications (SM), you make the whole enterprise seem utilitarian. Do you really want a utilitarian philosophy of knowledge driving curriculum? If so, do you want the students to adjudicate? Students, by definition, don't know what they need to learn. Don’t be surprised when they conclude that they don’t need STEM.
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math deserve a better fate than to be lumped together.
The bigger problem is the over-enthusiasm of well-intentioned educators. STEM classes should neither take up an inordinate amount of the budget nor crowd out time for the subjects that steer STEM to good ends. For surely:
or in constituent parts,
cannot save the day.
Wait, didn’t STEM defeat smallpox, rabies, and polio? What about the clean water that flows to my shower? What about my brother, born four months premature at 1 lb 6 oz, whom many surgeons and nurses rescued?
Yes, there are many battles won. But I’m talking about the war - the war between Love and Hate, between Joy and Pride, between Heaven and Hell.
If you have ever visited the site of a Nazi death camp, you likely noticed that Nazis excelled at STEM. Their “final solution” was a testament to efficiency in the service of evil. The mayhem generated by the STEM-excellent German National Socialists should stand as a prophecy against STEM-centric education.
Don’t write off the argument because you get annoyed when people compare troubles today with the horrors of the 1940's. We still have a lot to learn from that calamity, and we had better keep trying to learn from it if we really mean Never Again. We are much nearer to failing than you think.
Teddy Roosevelt himself needed more than STEM. He needed a philosophy of conservation and of government to create the national parks. He badly needed, and never got, the moral education that would have banished pseudo-scientific ideas about the superiority of white males (Note his stark comment about Black Americans in a personal letter, "As a race and in the mass they are altogether inferior to whites.").
If you wish to reach back even further in time, consider the builders of the Tower of Babel who sought progress independent of divine guidance or purpose. It was the leaving-out of God, not the tallness of the structure, that incurred divine judgment.
The power humanity gains from STEM will always be a double edged sword. If you can split atoms, you can treat cancer, and you can make atomic bombs. The evil does not have to be premeditated or intentional. A hammer in the hands of a toddler does a lot of damage, too. If we are handing hammers out to emotional or intellectual toddlers, we had better be prepared for injured family members and damaged homes.
Every time civilization has spent more time on how than on why or should, humanity has lived to regret it.
If you think I’m overreacting, read more about using murdered unborn children for experiments, combining human and animal DNA, forcibly sterilizing citizens, and manufacturing Sarin gas. Or you could consider that research money doesn’t flow to humanity’s hardest problems (like controlling infectious bacterial diseases or preparing for a Carrington Event), but rather to high-profit projects.
Educators do not have all the time in the world.
When a teacher has to make a choice about how to invest instructional time, please pray she has a preferential option for history, literature, philosophy, and theology. If she doesn’t, she may one day be credited in a supervillain’s autobiography.
We don't need any more supervillains. We need people who have learned how to think through the ethics of a decision. We need people who care more about the common good than about personal profit. We need people who are willing to give up gains in knowledge and power when morality demands it. We need people who know why there is something rather than nothing.
We need people who figure out what problems are worth solving in the first place - is overpopulation the problem, or is demographic winter a more pressing concern? Why do so many women end up cooperating with the killings of their own children? Is fake meat going to save the planet, or is it compounding our modern dietary estrangement from our ecosystems?
We need, therefore, to spend more time on history (the study of the mistakes and wisdom of humanity), on literature (the imagining of how the human character develops and affects others), and on philosophy (the ordered way of understanding reality and the sharpening of our reasoning skills).
Iesus Savior Hominum
But more than all these things, we need Jesus. I propose the asteroid test* as a way of approaching educational priorities:
An asteroid will destroy the earth in three weeks’ time. Astronomers did not see it in time to try the classic moves (nuke it, nudge it, get everyone into caves). The schools are still open as adults panic.
What classes should still meet? ONLY RELIGION CLASS can prepare you for what comes next. Not STEM classes, or Language Arts, or Civics. Learning about God is not just essential; it is the MOST essential thing.
So let’s prioritize the Lord Jesus Christ, the one true savior of humanity. Indeed, the asteroid test is not an impossible scenario; our personal asteroids could be just around the corner.
Since our created purpose is to adore God in communion with one another through eternity, there is definitely enough curriculum for K-12 schools to work on; rigor does not take a hit when we emphasize the study of an infinite God.
The End is Nigh
I am glad I am not the only one with concerns. Our classical school and many schools like it help students put first things first. We will keep encouraging children to learn all they can about creation in light of the Creator. Maybe one day God will use one of our grads to prevent asteroid-induced extinction, but if He doesn't, we will still count our work as fruitful if our grads are holding to the Lord Jesus Christ.
In summary, yes to the ingredients of STEM, no to the iffy branding of STEM, yes to prioritizing eternal things over temporal ones, and no to educating in mind and not in morals.
Photo Credit for Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Tower of Babel