In recent years, the focus on technology in our society has led to new priorities in education, culminating in a focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, widely known by the acronym “STEM.” STEM is well-intentioned in that the goal is to prepare children for lucrative careers in the twenty-first century. There is a negative side to this agenda if the study of the classics is neglected. While many may view a program of education based on the study of great literature, philosophy and music of the past as irrelevant, even passé, there are some positive elements to be embraced by supplementing the STEM emphasis with the arts, especially the classics.
“There is nothing that so greatly refreshes the mind as the works of the old classic writers,” maintained the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, himself by now an “old classic writer.” Schopenhauer knew that reading great literature and philosophy of the past from around the world, for even a half-hour, could refocus the mind, as we encounter new ideas and new worlds which expand our understanding everyday reality.
Journalist David Denby visited this topic in his book “Great Books,” in which he describes (to quote his subtitle) his “adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and other indestructible writers of the Western World.” Denby returned to Columbia University as an adult student, auditing classes in classical literature to rediscover the importance of the writers of the past in informing the present. He concluded that “the media give information, but information…has become transitory and unstable.” Denby was writing in the 1990s, but his observations are even truer today, in the age of social media, “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
The classics of literature and philosophy have had staying power because they transcend the “transitory and unstable” information of the moment, challenging us instead to understand ideas, expand upon them, question them, and thus develop critical-thinking skills crucial to the moral, ethical and professional dilemmas confronted by the scientist, the technology specialist, the engineer and the mathematician.
Denby worries that a serious study of Plato, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dostoevsky have so left the primary and secondary school curriculum that only in college is one exposed to such works, if even then. Indeed, STEM now begins to be felt in post-secondary education, as readings and assignments for college English courses have turned more and more toward writing business correspondence and technical reports. I have taught at universities in which the English term-paper assignments are often limited to “design your own business” or “write about a technology concern of today.”
There is a decided problem to this which I addressed in the introduction to the book I co-authored, “The Mind and Philosophy of Man in his Search for the Divine,” by I.G. Soorma.
“Intense, prolonged reading has become less a crucial element in the formation of one’s understanding of the world,” I wrote. Reading in the humanities and a study of the arts help one form a unique perspective towards oneself, towards others, and towards life that is not easily developed from a study of technical subjects alone.
By no means do I intend to suggest that we implement a system of education which ignores the realities of our society today, focused as it is on computer systems and related technologies found throughout science, medicine, transportation, and industries too numerous to mention. Rather, I would advocate, as others have, that we add a letter to the “STEM” acronym – the letter “A,” allowing an equivalent role for the arts alongside science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: STEAM. This would give STEM some much-needed STEAM.