From STEM to STEAM
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.
For more years than I care to remember, there has been a focus of educational reformers in this country upon the so-called STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The assumption has long been that in this highly technological age, we need to train more of our young people in STEM subjects in order to compete more effectively with foreign competition, especially that from Asian nations.
When I was the senior signal officer in the U.S. Army, I was well aware of our shortcomings in STEM subjects. We encountered increasing difficulty finding Army personnel who came into the service well-versed in the sciences they need to manage modern digital communications. Too often, the military services find themselves obliged to provide inductees with the advanced technological training they need to function in the high-paced environment of national defense. We often lamented the failure of the public schools to produce graduates who could handle it.
But I believe it is a fundamental mistake to leave the fine arts out of the equation, or rather to focus on the STEM subjects to the exclusion of the fine arts. The optimum focus should be on science, technology, engineering - the fine arts - and mathematics, what I would call the STEAM subjects.
Within the fine arts I include the social sciences without which our people cannot hope to understand the world around them - history, economics, and civics - that are essential to the exercise of responsible citizenship. I am often astounded to learn how many young people coming out of high school, and even college, know almost nothing of American history or the sacrifices our ancestors made to bequeath to us our heritage of freedom. They often cannot identify what century the American Revolution or the Civil War occurred in, nor do they understand why these seminal events figure so prominently in current affairs. In the absence of such information, they often exhibit a contempt for the military because they do not see it as relevant to their own lives.
Likewise, it is imperative that our young people should have an appreciation of art, music and literature which are essential to enlightened consciousness of what it means to be human. The great writers of history open windows upon the human experience of countless lives that are otherwise closed to us. Great symphonies and majestic paintings lift the human spirit to a higher plane. The fine arts are in their own way more essential to civilized existence than advanced computers and digital communications. They are in fact the knowledge and understanding that advanced computers and digital communications were created to transmit.
I pity the poor man or woman who cannot find respite from the cares of the world, wisdom to guide them through it and beauty to transcend our mean estate through the fine arts. Without the fine arts, science, technology, engineering and mathematics are so much noise.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.