Can We Stem the Tide of STEM Already?


2015-04-23 – I am a science enthusiast. Although my career did not go in that direction, my science education went further than most. I was a physics major through my second year of college. And I might have stayed on if I knew what I know now. But that’s another story.

Today’s post has to do with a peculiar statement in an article from the Chicago Sun-Times entitled: Study: Top universities dropping Shakespeare requirement. The article reports on a study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Here is the peculiar statement:

[Michael] Poliakoff [vice president of policy for the council and author of the report] said that the council encourages all college students to study Shakespeare because the tough work involved in such a class can help prepare them for any job, including today’s highly sought-after engineering, data analytics, and app and web-development work.

“The exercise of confronting challenging, different and difficult texts is a carry-over skill that we all need in any professional context,” Poliakoff said.


Since when do we have to prop up Shakespeare by suggesting that it supports science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM disciplines)?

Now I value STEM highly, but is that all there is?

The thing that I find peculiar is that much of the cultural establishment that yaks about the urgency of STEM in education are the very people who couldn’t do an algebra problem if you gave them one and don’t know Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle from a black hole in the ground.

While our kids have not been learning STEM, there’s a whole lot of other things they’ve not been learning and Shakespeare is one of those things. And it’s a shame.

The folks who have been yakking about the urgency of STEM do have a vague inkling that it’s a shame, but they feel obliged to justify everything in terms of STEM . . . because big dollars stem from STEM. (And they love to chide their political opponents for being STEM ignorant.)

But STEM’s not all there is. So I’ll tell you why Shakespeare is important.

It’s because Shakespeare is something that we share as a culture.

Shakespeare is not the only thing, of course. There’s other literature. There’s music. There’s art. And there’s history and sports, comedy and drama, politics and even religion.

These things have been denigrated as a waste of time for decades. But what is it that binds you to me but our shared experiences.

As important as it is, trigonometry is not a shared experience.

These things have been denigrated as being the legacy of dead white men.

Science is the legacy of dead white men. Or not, just as the world of art and humanities has its female side.

C’mon folks. If it seems like our culture is fragmenting, here’s why: no one is teaching us about what we all have in common.

Part of that is Shakespeare.

Part of that is Maya Angelou.

Part of that is B.B. King.

Part of that is Tennessee Williams.


(If you get that reference, I’ve made my point, though I gave you a really big hint.)

We’re not going to STEM our way out of the culture wars. But knowing that we share something important . . .

STEM is important. But that’s not all there is.

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