Let’s take the vocational classes of the 1960’s as an example. My parents had options of graduating high school having taken classes that trained them for a job. My mom took classes that prepared her to be a secretary. My dad didn’t take any, but could have learned to be a car mechanic or electrician. Their generation spent high school learning a trade, giving them the experience to get work right after graduation.
These classes became the ROP I knew in the 1980’s. I could get out of school early to work or attend a trade school. Instead, I opted to take advantage of the “get out of school early” option and left school at noon every day of my senior year to work at the local movie theater in the evenings. Not sure this was the ideal use of my ROP opportunity.
Then ten years ago, I was involved in CTE (Career Technical Education). The local schools and community colleges were receiving money to align core curriculum with predetermined career technical pathways, intended to give kids real world experience in the classroom. I wrote curriculum for English classes that embedded cross-curricular career units. Because of this program, students were exposed not only to the content, but to its application, allowing them to make more informed college and career choices. This was presented as a novel idea, given that we were mired in No Child Left Behind at the time and schools were focused on tests, test taking and rote memorization. But we all knew we were simply participating in the movement of the pendulum once again.
Today, with the advent of Common Core, the push now is to prepare students for life after high school. Apparently we haven’t done this before. Today we are calling these courses Pathways. Again, not a bad idea -- in fact, it’s been a great idea since 1776 and the founding of the United States when we began training future leaders through apprenticeships and females for the teaching profession. And it’s been a great idea ever since.
This time, however, the pendulum has swung a little too far for my taste. The concept of Pathways allows students to take a sequence of coursework during high school to connect a student’s interest to a post-graduation career or college degree. Again, not a bad idea. But, unfortunately, the Pathways favor science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with some business courses thrown in for good measure. The newly minted label is STEM. My argument lies in what’s glaringly absent from these courses -- where are the liberal arts options? The art? Music? Language? Law? Writing? Philosophy? History? Anthropology?
Where are the courses that create well-rounded citizens of the world?
When I think about the companies that are currently changing the world, I see companies that embrace not just technology, but also design, sociology and storytelling. Apple is Apple because of Steve Jobs’s obsession with design, touch, feel -- the beauty of the art and aesthetic of his products. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is what it is today because he understands humanity and its need to be social -- a social media empire as much psychology and sociology as it is technology. And let’s face it, Starbucks does make great coffee, but this coffee company isn’t what it is today because of a specially-engineered coffee maker. It is what it is because of the culture, the people, and the story created around the brand.
Just like great movies take more than just a camera engineer and video editor to become classics. They take well-integrated music, camera angles, scripts, nuance, and storytelling.
Do we really want to be a country that writes bad software code because our programmers don’t understand fluency and cohesion? Do we really want to be a country that simply manufactures great microchips, but offers nothing value added? Or do we want to be a country that drives innovation because of our creativity, ability to solve the world’s problems and critical thinking prowess?
I will argue every day that STEM is only half the equation -- that a solid, well-rounded liberal arts education in conjunction with STEM will give us a leading edge advantage as a country and our kids the leading edge advantage as world leaders and innovators.
The world of the 21st century is going to need more than just STEM -- it is going to need another pendulum swing.
I just hope it isn’t too late.