More than STEM

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Education involves learning in school, at home, in the field, at the office, on the assembly line or with neighbors and friends. In Iowa we review the necessities of learning and in school emphasize the science, technology, engineering and math that comprise the now well-known acronym, STEM.

Our schools add reading, writing and the arts to the system, topics that echo the ancients. Elders today still remember one-room schoolhouses where the lesson plan involved basics including that seminal truth about virtue. As Socrates taught, the most important knowledge is the knowledge of yourself. In every school building character has been important.

Schools work to develop a whole person. In Iowa we try to build autonomy.

Recently, I attended a National Alliance for the Partnership in Equity meeting with about two dozen other teachers and administrators. Discussion about STEM was at the center. How did students reflect the basic skills? Was not STEM the important thing? Didn’t this focus mean good jobs?

The STEM discussion gathered the usual flowers. Teachers said the sciences mattered. One woman stated her engineering degree allowed her employment at John Deere. Another said her husband introduced himself by noting that, “I’m not a nerd ... a geek ...”

While Iowa news focused on budgets and bargaining, we discussed the benefits of science and structured thinking; the need for graduates to think critically, the new basics of cyber security and brain studies.

One commenter reviewed context of well-rounded learners and learning as liberation.

“If we teach only these subjects, if we are making tiny little niches, for example, the graphics application engineer with the singular skill of adapting internet to conform to agricultural needs in Iowa ... this rather than developing people who can be independent as our grandparents were — the farmer who welds, does electric and plumbing, plows, harvests, reads, is active in community — and then the career dies, what does that mean?”

The answer was more education. In today’s economy, career changes have become routine. For all the importance of STEM, without general knowledge and critical thinking, we may be losing the well-rounded students who, at the end of the day, add to our society.

The day’s discussion drew to a close. Politics is limiting educators’ right to create schools that teach ancient virtues of dialogue and the olden-day matter of knowledge of ourselves. It has removed educators’ right to bargain and debate.

Here was Kipling’s great ‘IF’:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too ...

If ... You can keep your virtue, being that resilient man or woman, then you have learned something.

If educators’ freedom to discuss perspective is maligned, what happens to class dialogue? The ends of learning have always been to foster informed debate. Dialogue is meant to liberate us all.

• Tim Trenkle of Dubuque teaches psychology and writing at Northeast Iowa Community College and is a freelance writer. Comments: trenklet@nicc.edu

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