There is currently a push to encourage young people, girls in particular, to pursue STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. The subjects which, traditionally, are male-dominated, but that women are increasingly pursing and making notable contributions to. This is unsurprising; in a society that is increasingly conscious of the gender pay gap and the treatment of women around the world, why would we not encourage young women to pursue subjects that have the potential to provide good career prospects and contribute to a better world?
Yet there is another term that is increasingly appearing alongside, or in the place of STEM: STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. While this sounds like, at best a list to be found somewhere on a school overview and at worst a token attempt at diversity, STEAM is something that needs to be taken seriously in order to provide students, both at school and university, with a well rounded education.
On one level, STEM versus STEAM is a somewhat circular argument. Females have greater representation in arts than subjects such as engineering and technology at universities1, but arts subjects often do not provide lucrative career paths, therefore we should encourage them to pursue STEM, but it can be difficult for females to succeed in this area, so female students continue to be drawn to the arts. I am all for students being encouraged to pursue STEM subjects if they want to, and given extra support such as mentoring or scholarships if it is difficult for them to succeed. However, I think that two things need to be taken into account: one, many students, male and female, want to study arts subjects, not because they are discouraged to pursue anything else, but because that is genuinely what they are interested in, which is a good thing because two, arts subjects are what provide students with the ability to form opinions, to express contextual, persuasive arguments and to consider the perspectives of others. These are just the general benefits, let alone that, although in the case of STEAM it is only one letter in a five-letter acronym, arts includes a range of subjects such as languages, literature, music, media, visual art and drama.
Besides the variety that arts has to offer, in a highly connected world it is crucial that students have the skills to communicate with others, both in sharing their own ideas and understanding others’ (humanities is also important in this regard). While the pop cultural touchstone that is Mean Girls may have taught us that maths is the same in every country, every young person is growing up with their own ideas, values and feelings. Some of these can be expressed through STEM, but they need the language to be able to do so. In a homework help club the other day, for students who are mostly new arrivals to Australia, I was attempting to help a student persevere through a grammar worksheet, while across the table another volunteer was convincing another student of the necessity of arithmetic. Both are equally important in an increasingly global community. Maths is an important skill for everyday life, as is grammar. But it is language that allows us to write books, poetry, plays and films, to share our ideas and for general enjoyment.
Many famous quotes dwell on the need for art to provide enjoyment. Writer C.S. Lewis lists it as something that “gives value to survival”. Many texts deal with its importance even at a time when life and freedom are at stake – from The Diary of Anne Frank to The Book Thief – these focus on far off wars in times and places when people needed something to hope for. But even in countries with peace and affluence, art is not just an added bonus, it is vital to supporting people in a time when there is mass displacement through migration and asylum seeking, and when nearly everyone in the developed world has access to platforms that give them a voice. In a city such as Perth, Western Australia, both issues need to be addressed. Students who are new to the country and struggling to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture need to be able to express their basic needs and process their sometimes traumatic experiences. There are also students who grew up here, who have resources and cultural capital and access to technology to share their ideas. They need support to share these in ways that will get people to listen. A recent high school English class I sat in on had students giving oral presentations on a social issue. One student, who generally did not enjoy the subject, surprised the class by performing a passionate and accomplished piece of slam poetry about the treatment of refugees in Australia. The ability of students to share their thoughts through arts is as important as understanding where refugees are coming from through humanities and social sciences, using maths to forecast the economic impact or engineering to create the infrastructure to support them.
Universities proclaim the employability of arts graduates for their critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is definitely important, but so are general employment prospects. We need to create a culture where students are encouraged to pursue STEM subjects, if that is their wish, but are also able to pursue arts subjects not just because, or in spite of, the jobs they lead to, but also because of their place in contributing to our personal and community wellbeing.
1. The Conversation, 25/5/15, http://theconversation.com/who-goes-to-university-the-changing-profile-of-our-students-40373