Why The STEAM Fad In Schools Isn’t About A Better Education

Why The STEAM Fad In Schools Isn’t About A Better Education

Identity-group ‘diversity’ is now ‘an explicit job qualification’ in scientific disciplines, altering the selection and training of future scientists.
Maureen Mullarkey

As the hard sciences surrender to the craze for diversity, high talent and standards of merit lose primacy. They are down-graded by ideological pressure to attract “underrepresented” minorities and women to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Created to advance the sciences, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has become a zealous convert to politicized assault on meritocratic measures of achievement. Heather MacDonald writes in the current issue of City Journal that the NSF “is consumed by diversity ideology.” Her article supports the statement—harrowing in its implications—that diversity is now “an explicit job qualification” in STEM disciplines, altering the selection and training of future scientists.

The diversity mandate metastasizes in unexpected ways. Nothing better illustrates its ability to spread than the incorporation of art into STEM fields, a fusion merrily dubbed STEAM. The arts are an arena of subjective, expressive activity in which concepts of correct or incorrect do not apply. Standards of achievement in the arts are not subject to verification or falsification. That makes the arts a perfect staging ground for retreat from rigor in the name of ideologically driven criteria.

Right, Because Science Isn’t Creative

The STEM to STEAM movement rests on the fallacy that artists are the apogees of creativity. Spearheaded by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the movement purports to bolster our flagging national intelligence by convincing educrats and politicians that art and design are “poised to transform our economy in the 21st century, just as science and technology did in the last century.”

The juggernaut has been gathering steam, if you will, since 2011 when Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), co-founder of the Congressional STEAM Caucus, introduced House Resolution 319. It declared “the importance of art and design in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.”

The resolution was not a plug for industrial design, a crucial component of manufacturing since the Industrial Revolution. Rather, it was an encyclical that decreed a taffy pull on the structure of education to place art and design at the center of STEM instruction from kindergarten on up. Propelled by RISD and founded in 2013, the STEAM Caucus aims “to foster the true innovation that comes with combining the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer.”

Elise Stefanik (R-NY), co-chair of the caucus, and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) joined Langevin in announcing the STEM to STEAM Act of 2017. Stefanik seconds the movement’s triumphalist assumption that “incorporating the artist’s perspective” into STEM will encourage students to “think outside the box and create new solutions to complex problems.”

Bonamici, co-chair of the Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus, insists the arts will inject STEM with “conceptual fluency, strong problem-framing and problem-solving capabilities, and the ability to shape an idea or outcome from something that never existed before.” In other words, while common mortals labor over STEM stuffs—e.g., matrix mechanics, algebraic vector bundles, super canonical metrics, or plasma physics—it is artists who carry the gene for conceptual facility and innovation.

A claim this gaudy should submit to standards of evidence. But contemporary abandonment of disciplined regimen and principles of excellence in the arts—most thoroughly in visual art, RISD’s bread and butter—inhibits empirical analysis. With insufficient grounds to buttress its contentions, the movement relies on inflated assertion posing as fact.

Of Course It’s Really All About Money and Politics

At the heart of this rhetorical crusade is a hard-nosed effort at fundraising. More entrepreneurial than science-minded, STEAM offers art schools a new avenue for grant-seeking. It also provides a back-door means of boosting the numbers of women and other “under-represented” groups in STEM.

Women, for example, outnumber men in art school but are outnumbered by men in the sciences. Recent studies indicate that many women who enter STEM programs drop out to pursue degrees allied with social-justice and human-resources concerns. STEAM permits less exacting talents to fellow-travel in STEM without excelling or contributing to it.

Langevin gave the game away by admitting that the STEM to STEAM Act existed “to promote the integration of art and design into the National Science Foundation Advancing Informal Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Learning program.” Mention of NSF is key since it evaluates proposals on their social justice potential, specifically their impact on designated identity groups. Rebecca Prinster, writing for Insight Into Diversity, explains why diversity is a crucial factor in securing grants:

The National Science Board — which establishes grant proposal evaluation guidelines for NSF — defines “broader impact” as the ways in which the proposed project will benefit society or advance a desired social outcome. . . . Such outcomes include the full participation of women, people with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields; development of a diverse STEM workforce; and enhanced research and education infrastructure.

Jean Vanski, acting deputy director of the Division of Institution and Award Support at NSF, describes the NSF as “a dual mission agency” in which diversity—including diverse faculty members—is a high priority. According to the NSF hymnal, “different perspectives bring to an enterprise different ways of solving problems.” This is an acceptable way to say that ethnicity, sexual preference, and other indices of “diversity,” are accorded authority, partly displacing any measurable gift for mastery in science and math.

But how, precisely, does art fit the NSF’s founding mission to promote rigorous scientific and technological research? STEAM has an answer for that. By sleight of mind, academia is redefining studio arts—or art practices, as current jargon prefers—as a mode of scholarly research. The goods the artist practitioner creates are now “sites of knowledge,” in the going phrase.

Because We Can No Longer Appreciate Art as Art

The goal of redefinition is image enhancement. Art schools are mainly discrete entities within universities. They are detached from the research model of the sciences and exist apart from the prestige that accrues to scientific productivity. That puts art departments at a competitive disadvantage as funding increasingly follows the demand for significant productivity. In a contest for resources, the arts boost their status within institutional settings by declaring themselves as “methodologies for research.” It is an ingenious marketing strategy, rational-sounding but sufficiently delusional to circumvent argument.

Among signs of the times are growing quantities of academic texts like Graeme Sullivan’s “Art Practice as Research” (2005), Shaun McNiff’s “Art As Research” (2013), and related titles on art-based learning strategies in every discipline to which grant money applies. Monographs multiply on such themes as “Learning In And Through the Arts: the Question of Transfer.” STEAM resurrects the once-influential concept of transfer of training, discredited since the early twentieth century. But where it was previously thought that mathematics sharpened the mind for every other endeavor, that laurel has now been passed to the arts.

STEAM dogma asserts the artist’s unique capacity for guiding STEM through strategic challenges. Still, it cannot specify how the “artist’s perspective” might reverse—to take one example—American decline in high-tech exports and semi-conductor manufacturing. How does an art major address concerns described by David Goldman in Asia Times:

Virtually all of American investment in R&D today goes to software. . . . We’ve conceded to Asia, and especially China, the actual manufacturing, to the point that—this bears repeating—we can’t put a warplane in the air without Chinese chips.

While China produces four times as many undergraduate STEM degrees and twice as many STEM PhDs as the United States, STEAM propagandists produce postulates that evade measurement or abandon intelligibility altogether. The scientist’s observations can be corroborated or debunked; the artist’s cannot.

The skills essential to STEM majors derive from disciplined immersion in, for example, the deep issues of physics and its philosophy. They require a temperamental pull toward the arcane and strenuous universe of numbers, a sensitivity foreign to the arts. The caliber and character of innovation needed to spur economic growth is not the artist’s métier. To assert otherwise is an artifact of ideology.

Art and design do not “promote creativity and innovation.” They are simply potential avenues for one—largely consumerist—variety of it. Unnoticed by Stefanik is the unruly truth that those who adopt the term “thinking outside the box” are handcuffed to a cliché, captives of promotional boilerplate. Arts colonization of STEM does not bode well for productivity in our science and tech sectors.

Maureen Mullarkey is an artist who writes on art and culture. She keeps the weblog Studio Matters. Follow her on Twitter, @mmletters.

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