Don’t STEM the development of the humanities

What would the world look like without the arts and humanities? Well, in the not too distant future we may know. The relentless drive in the UK education system to push STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, may bring that dystopian nightmare to fruition. Education has been hijacked by philistines who are convinced the future belongs to mathematicians, engineers, scientists and computer programmers.

According to Dr Kevin Stannard, writing in TES, the new national curriculum will have dire consequences for the humanities. As Stannard explains, the new curriculum unifies (to a large extent) the three national sciences around a core understanding of the scientific method. The arts and humanities, however, are not treated with the same care. There is to be no overarching theory or practice that gives meaning to the study of people in society.

The privileging of STEM subjects is justified on the grounds that the future is already owned by scientists and producers of the yet unforeseen ‘world of tomorrow’. Nobody in the government has any clue what this world will look like. Policymakers merely claim that the citizens of tomorrow will have skills beyond our wildest dreams.

Although this sounds exciting, but it begs the question: how will children develop without a grounding in the arts and humanities? What type of people would they become? What would they value? How would they organise their shiny, new, technologically driven society? Ultimately, would they be good or bad? To my mind, this world would be horrific.

The arts and humanities, even within the narrow confines of the national curriculum, offer children the ability to understand and empathise with different peoples and times. They offer children a glimpse into a different past, allowing students to imagine how people did things and treated each other differently. They allow children the conceptual space to experience something that lends meaning to their own lives. This, ultimately, is the beauty of great literature, philosophy and art, within which we find universal concepts that tell us something about the nature of humanity – both good and bad.

In the words of Hannah Arendt: ‘[Education] is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us… prepar[ing] them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.’

How could this be achieved without the arts and humanities? How could our children ‘renew a common world’, with the potential of creating something unique, without understanding the triumphs and failures of those that walked the Earth before them?

While the sciences are certainly important and have brought us many great things, expanding our world to the stars and beyond, it is the philosophers, the thinkers and the humanists who conceptualise our place within this vast expanse and help us understand that we are capable of greater things.

Christopher Beckett is a writer and researcher working in the education sector. Read his blog.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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