In last week’s episode of Sciency Words, I told you about STEAM education, a variation of STEM education, but with an A added to represent the arts. There’s a passionate and sometimes vitriolic fight happening in the education world about this. If I had to pick sides, I guess I’d be on team STEAM; but I hate picking sides in something like this because this whole STEM vs. STEAM fight amounts to what I like to call a “failure of language.”
What I mean by that is that the whole STEM vs. STEAM thing is all about words. Words, words, words. Nothing more. Every time we invent a new word, we create a sort of mental box. To define our new word, we put certain things in the box, and we keep other things out. To some extent, we have to do this; otherwise, language wouldn’t work.
But when we start sorting concepts into different mental boxes, we may inadvertently start erecting mental barriers as well. As a child growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I never heard about STEM or STEAM. Those terms hadn’t been invented yet. Even so, young me came to understand that the arts and sciences were absolutely different from each other. There were hard barriers between them. I worry that an unintended consequence of STEM has been to make those kinds of barriers harder and taller, and I’d like to believe that STEAM might help break those barriers down.
As a matter of education policy and the allocation of grant money, maybe STEM is the more useful word to be using. When we can take a bunch of big concepts (like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, along with all the interdisciplinary challenges that come with those subjects) and put them together in the same mental box, we suddenly have the ability to communicate complex ideas in simple ways. STEM education is important. The fact that this term exists and we all more-or-less understand what it means is a huge success of language.
But what I’ve seen of this STEM vs. STEAM debate strikes me as a case study of how a success of language can start to look like a failure. I can think of other examples as well. Any time we start insisting that things (or worse, people) belong in separate boxes, we’re allowing mere words to create real divisions, and we’re making the communication of ideas between the two sides more difficult.
This may not qualify as a scientific term, or even as a linguistics term, but it’s a term I’m using more and more in all the seemingly pointless arguments our society keeps getting into these days:
FAILURE OF LANGUAGE
Okay, I’m going to get off my philosophy of language soapbox. Now it’s your turn. What do you think of STEM, STEAM, and the ways language succeeds and/or fails us?