July 13, 2015
Once again, The City University of New York is offering a range of free college and pre-college summer classes in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to students in the NYC metropolitan area. While this is great news in general, and I applaud the public and private funding initiatives that have made this possible, it also comes with some less great news: classes in literary studies, writing, foreign languages, public speaking, history, sociology, anthropology, and any number of other non-STEM disciplines and programs are not free. As a result, and due to those inimitable “laws” of economics, while enrollment in STEM summer courses has soared at CUNY colleges across the city, enrollment in non-STEM summer courses has waned.
Does this matter?
Well, the answer undoubtedly depends on your perspectives on any number of different issues, including some fairly broad ones, for instance the roles and purposes of public education and its relations with and importance to social and government policy. However, for people like me, an associate professor in writing, literature, and new media classes at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology, this fact matters both in terms of its immediate and longer-term economic consequences, both of which end up being intricately intertwined. For, due to those inimitable “laws” of economics, while enrollment in free STEM summer courses has soared at CUNY colleges across the city, enrollment in non-free, non-STEM summer courses has waned.
One immediate result has been that there are few summer classes for faculty in the humanities to teach, which is an issue of some importance to those whose annual salary is well below the median income required to qualify as a member of the “middle class” in New York City (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/realestate/what-is-middle-class-in-manhattan.html?_r=0). But putting aside the ongoing travails of the “professional class” in an age of the ever greater inequity in wealth distribution, there is the issue of the impact of current STEM-funding in relation to longer-term social and educational trends and currents. The substantial amount of money, time, and resources being dedicated to STEM related initiatives and courses has directly resulted in less time, money and resources being dedicated to “non-STEM” courses and disciplines, and this fact has profound socio-cultural, as well as economic implications for all of us.
So what should those underfunded students, teachers, and practitioners in the arts and humanities do? Again, there are several different perspectives on this issue. One is to make connections between the arts and humanities and the various STEM disciplines through initiatives that make it clear that math and science and the fine and performing arts and literary and social sciences have a great deal to do with one another, which is certainly true. But rather than settling for the gleanings or leftovers or scraps of the ever more enriched STEM initiatives, or riding on the somewhat tattered coattails of large NSF, NASA, and corporate grants, I believe there is another option and perspective to consider thanks largely to the very name of these STEM initiatives.
Is it not time to re-think the definition of STEM and the “technical” disciplines? Although this acronym, STEM, may incorporate a fair bit of ambiguity into its very name–Is science a discipline just like math? And what about technology? Is that a discipline at all?—there is absolutely no doubt as to which courses and disciplines have been, to date, included and excluded from it. But why? Do not courses in the fine and performing arts, the humanities, and social sciences involve the development of technical skills and the use of a range of technologies? The skills involved in learning about the functions of language, art, and society are not only essential to those who will pursue careers in math, science, and engineering, but are themselves highly technical fields. It is time to clarify and redefine the meanings of STEM to make it inclusive of courses and disciplines that rightfully and necessarily are part of it, namely college, high school, middle school, grade school, and pre-K courses in fine arts, performing arts, humanities, and social sciences. All of these disciplines and the courses related to them involve technologies in both the literal and figurative senses of the term. Making it clear that the “T” in STEM stands for TECHNOLOGIES, which are part and parcel of every discipline, will ensure funding for courses across the disciplines.