Ahead Steam Full

stem, steam, shteam, shteamss, shtedamss, shtedamsst, shterdamsst, shterdamssta, shterdamissta, shterdamisesta, schterdamisesta, schooterdamisesta, schoolterdamisesta, schoolterdarmisesta

“manpower channeling system”

That’s what Tom Hayden, in his famous 1972 Rolling Stone interview (well, famous to me), called efforts to channel Americans either into the Vietnam War or into vocations deemed central to the national interest. [Rolling Stone, October 26, 1972, 44]

It resonates with these STEM initiatives.


starting to track the history of stem

(I have to remember that I started this just to keep track of things, not to write beautiful, persuasive essays. So I need to post more. I need to post more. The material has been piling up. Plus, I need to install updates on my computer, but that requires a restart. Which means I need to close all this stuff that’s been open on the desktop for weeks.)

One of the questions that I want to be able to answer with confidence is where the current STEM Movement comes from. When, where, and why did it start? This is a first stab at one possibility. Don’t hold me to it.

The key year may have been 2007. This seems counter-intuitive to me, since I had suspected the Movement was a product of the Great Recession that began in 2008. So much for that idea. It seems that a renewed emphasis on national competitiveness, an emphasis surely never wholly absent from American political discourse, took hold. So here are some key moments…

2007: Democrats take control of the House and they rename the “Committee on Science” the “Committee on Science and Technology.” Or, rather, they changed the name back to that, since that’s what it had been since 1974. Created in 1958 as Congress reconvened for the first time since Sputnik, the committee was originally the “Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration.” This is the committee that wrote the Space Act, which created NASA. Anywho… The committee’s official web-history says, “Enhancing long-term economic competitiveness through investments in science and technology emerged as a centerpiece of Committee activities in the 110th and 111th Congresses. In response to the National Academies’ landmark report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the Committee led a bipartisan effort to advance the Academies’ recommendations, culminating in President Bush’s signature of the America COMPETES Act in 2007.  The legislation, as enacted, put the budgets of three key federal science agencies on a path to double over ten years: NSF, NIST, and DOE Office of Science.” [source]

March 7, 2007: Bill Gates appears before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The Committee was holding a hearing on “competitiveness,” which, according to a report in Education Week soon after, included “efforts to gird against foreign competition through improved mathematics and science education.” Gates also made the case that increasing the number of H1B visas would increase competitiveness. Gates also spoke of changing American high schools in order to boost the economic opportunities of graduates and connecting academic math and science with real-world work, rather than teaching “math for math’s sake.” [Sean Cavanagh, “Gates Cites Need to Improve High Schools, Boost Visas,” Education Week March 14, 2007, 22]

March 2007: The same week as Gates’s testimony, a bipartisan group in the Senate introduced the America Competes Act. Senators decided to bypass committee (which was reported as an unusual step) and send the bill directly to the floor. [Sean Cavanagh, “Gates Cites Need to Improve High Schools, Boost Visas,” Education Week March 14, 2007, 22]

August 9, 2007: President Bush signs the America COMPETES Act [pdf] into law. “COMPETES” stood for “Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science.” Oy vey. (Obama signed a reauthorization into law in January 2011.) This was, as the legislation says, “an act to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve competitiveness of the United States.” Anyone who pays any attention to this will recognize the two biggest buzzwords in this whole STEM dealio.

I’ll start working through the legislation and its outcomes in a future post. But now that I’ve looked a bit more closely at some of this stuff, it seems that, actually, the renewed emphasis on national competitiveness came two years earlier in 2005, with a National Academies report called Above the Gathering Storm. Ominous. More on that later. So maybe what happens in 2007 is that federal legislation joins such anxieties firmly to STEM. We’ll see.


john maeda kills me, 1

John Maeda is really interesting. I’ve been slowly familiarizing myself with his work and I think he’ll show up here quite a bit.

Here’s a handy piece that he wrote this past summer that seems like a good intro to what he’s generally on about. It all sounds pretty good in its broad strokes (as things often do), though there’s some real easy conflation of lab science, technology, engineering, computer science, et al on the one hand, and art, design, and critical thinking on the other.

Until recently, Maeda was the president of RISD. Now he’s a design partner at a venture capitalist outfit in California.

the maker movement

An honest question: what does the “maker movement” have to do with STEM/STEAM and the fate of the arts and humanities? I’m not sure, but it all seems connected. At this point, I just have some random thoughts and questions, most skeptical and snide.

1) What the hell is up with 3D printing? The gun thing is frightening. So is the food thing. A 3D printer is one of the things my son’s school got our of their STEM deal. Will we really be able to make our own plastic stuff instead of having to import it, sticking it to the corporate man, saving energy, the planet, foreign workers, our wallets, our souls?

2) What’s up with makerspaces? And hackerspaces? I already feel nostalgic for hanging out in front of a computer by myself in a dark basement, surrounded by empty beer cans and pizza boxes, unshowered, a thin string of drool hanging from the corner of my mouth. (Just joking. I never did that.) Now people actually do that with other people in semi-public spaces.

3) Speaking of public spaces, when did craft classes become a hip business plan? When did community arts center and innovation incubator come together? STEAM anyone? One word: Brooklyn. Another word: Philly. One more: fail.

Random links:

Maker Education Initiative [link]

Where the Makers Meet [link]

arts funding in nj

Stay at more hotels. If this bill becomes law, more of your hotel taxes will go toward arts funding. Even travel industry lobbyists love it, because, as one says, “The very people who benefit from this bill are the ones putting heads in beds.” The bill recently made it out of committee. [star ledger]

neuroaesthetics: reading makes you empathic

…or at least that’s what some studies in the burgeoning field of “neuroaesthetics” (I can’t resist a good neologism) often claim via brain imaging technology.

Raymond Mar’s lab at York University in Toronto has been perhaps the most prominent producer of such studies, including ones published in 2006, 2009, and 2010.

One recent study out of the New School claims that the empathic effect is strongest in literary fiction. According to another, Jane Austen works particularly well.

A celebrated Dutch novelist is writing his latest book with a funny-looking electrode cap on his head. When the book’s done, fifty people will don similar caps while they read it. Sounds like a Spike Jonze movie. [ny times]

the heart of the crisis, roundup #1

In June 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released its report on the state of the humanities in American life, The Heart of the Matter. That state, of course, is crisis, as it has been for decades. Supposedly. [pdf from humanitiescommission.org]

You can watch a short film about the report. [vimeo]

And watch the co-chair of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences talk to Stephen Colbert about the report. [colbertnation]

There has been a lot of response. Among which have been…

Mary Rizzo, Public Historian in Residence at Rutgers-Camden, colleague, friend, argues (among other insightful things) that this talk of crisis hasn’t taken the public humanities fully into account. Great line: “What this video nicely (and unintentionally) shows, are the tensions inherent in discussions of the public humanities. First, the video suggests that at one and the same time, the humanities are significant because they are about understanding what makes us human, a broad sensibility that clasps our collective hands together in a vast kumbaya, and that they are also directly connected to the continuation of American hegemony in the 21st century. Arguing both points at all would be tricky, but trying to argue them simultaneously stretches believability to the breaking point.” [maryrizzo]

And listen to Mary on the radio. [wamc]

And another great radio discussion with one of the humanities commissioners and a couple educators. This discussion is explicitly framed around recent attention and funding for STEM disciplines. (Clearly, these STEM-STEAM-humanities debates are partly struggles played out through discourses of crisis. Whose crisis is deeper? Whose is more important to the fate of the nation? Whatever the case, the Asians threaten to take over the world!) [whyy]

Often, the humanities crisis is measured in how many college majors the humanities attract.

David Brooks sees it as a moral crisis: “But the humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market. They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise. Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, ‘the dark vast forest.'” And then, much to Brooks’s chagrin, “the humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender.” Because, apparently, those triads are completely incompatible. [nytimes]

Verlyn Klinkenborg argues that one of the reasons for the humanities crisis, as defined by The Heart of the Matter, is that the humanities itself sucks at making a case for its value and teaching according to that value. For him, “what many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.” Fair enough, I guess, though “clear” thinking and writing often hides assumptions and complications and ironies. [nytimes]

Stanley Fish then responded to Brooks and Klinkenborg and the Humanities Commission’s report. He predicts “that this report — laden with bland commonplaces and recommendations that could bear fruit only in a Utopia — will be dutifully noted by pious commentators and then live a quiet life on the shelf for which it was destined.” He calls much of the report’s jargon “spectacularly empty.” In the end, he accuses the Commission of not sticking to its guns: “‘Curiosity-driven’ means driven simply by the desire (often obsessive) to determine the truth of a matter, independently of whether it is a truth that will rise to an era’s great challenges. That of course is precisely how the academy, and especially the humanist academy, has traditionally been conceived — as a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results. It is the rejection of this contemplative ideal in favor of various forms of instrumentalism that underlies the turn away from the humanist curriculum. The rhetoric of the report puts its authors on the side of that ideal, but when push comes to shove, they are all too ready to dilute it in the name of some large abstraction — democracy, culture, social progress, whatever. They are, in short, all too ready to depart from the heart of the matter.” [nytimes, again]

More recently in the Times, Gary Gutting located “the real humanities crisis” in the same arena as the STEM crisis: the job market. “We are rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class, which finds it harder and harder to find good jobs, as wealth shifts to the upper class. But we have paid scant attention to the cultural middle class, those with strong humanist interests and abilities who can’t reach the very highest levels, which provide almost all the cultural rewards of meaningful work.” [nytimes, last one for now]

Meanwhile, Harvard released its own report on the humanities crisis, spurred to action (or study and report-writing) by the decline in humanities majors at this “standard-bearer of American letters,” as the Wall Street Journal put it. The report focuses on establishing the humanities as job-marketable. Even Homi Bhabha – Homi Bhabha, he of all my hours spent struggling and revising my early graduate-student-career notions of culture and identity and politics!!!! – falls into the trap: “Mr. Bhabha said he didn’t give much weight to criticism from some elected officials who carp that young people need to go into fields that are supposedly more useful. ‘I think that’s because they have a very primitive and reductive view of what is essential in society,’ he said. ‘There are jobs, and even in business, the humanities play a major role.'” So let’s not carp about more useful fields because the humanities can, actually, get us a job in the business world? Depressing. And there’s this bitingly funny line (keep in mind, this is the Wall Street Journal, champion of engaged citizenship): “The report noted that Harvard’s humanities division had in some ways cut itself off from the job market—training students to be academics rather than ‘truly educated citizens’ of the broader society.” [wsj]

I’m holding out hope that the Harvard report is more complicated than this. I’ll try to report on it later. In the meantime, you (now I’m suddenly imagining readers) can read it in brief [pdf] or in full [pdf].

A few more…

Some have actually looked at the numbers. They found not a crisis, but a decline…that happened in the 1970s. Check out Michael Berube [crooked timber], Ben Schmidt [sapping attention], a revised Ben Schmidt [edge of the american west].

Leon Wieseltier spoke at the Brandeis commencement back in May about the crisis, as he sees it: “So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction—once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten—between the study of nature and the study of man.” He reportedly opened by addressing the crowd as “my fellow humanists.” (I can’t help but wonder if he’s ever read Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.”) [new republic]

And finally, Mark Bauerlein takes stock of many of these reports and comments (and many others, too), and notes: “These statements and others on how the humanities foster critical thinking, cultivate Information Economy skills, help enact social change, resist utilitarianism in human affairs, etc., may be challenged in one aspect or another, but they are all reasonable and they pop up in education discussions all the time. Their commonplace status, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that they share an extraordinary characteristic. It is a trait so simple and obvious, and so paradoxical, that one easily overlooks it, especially as these voices so earnestly endorse the humanities. The paradox is this: They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content…In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities. What an odd angle and an ineffectual one.” He argues that “students enroll and politicians fund and donors donate for a different reason, because they care about the humanities themselves, and they care about them because they’ve had a compelling exposure to a specific work.” So we should more explicitly promote with the content of the humanities. I’m down with this. And, to bring this long post full-circle and back to Mary Rizzo (which is not to imply that Rizzo herself would endorse this), Bauerlein’s case is rooted in public humanities practice: “Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty.” [the new criterion]


the asian connection

One thing I’ve been thinking about…

So much of the crisis talk in STEM seems to be rooted in discursive constructions of Asia and, maybe,  actual practices associated with various Asian nations. When we talk about American corporations and workers facing increasing competition in a global marketplace, isn’t it most often configured as a struggle with Asia, China and India looming especially large? And when we look at American students’ math and science competencies, isn’t it very often in relationship to the higher scores from Asian nations? (I realize, of course, that many non-Asian nations score higher than us, but I don’t see many American schools using Finnish, as opposed to Singapore Math.)

In the world of the humanities, where we’re constantly barraged with talk of crisis (post on this forthcoming), I hear increasing talk of how Asian nations – which, apparently, don’t have a tradition of humanities and/or liberal arts education – are adopting American-style liberal arts curricula. This is often pitched as Asian nations belatedly recognizing that education can be more than grossly instrumental – can foster creativity, personal development, critical thinking, whatever (the humanities litany) – at the exact same moment when the liberal arts are being devalued in the U.S.. Isn’t that ironic? If you’ve read Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s fascinating The Humanities and the Dream of America [chicago], you know what I’m talking about: he claims that the humanities has become an important American export.

And recently, the NY Times reported on the rise of a liberal arts university in India [ny times].

Just something I’ve noticed, something to keep an eye on. The point is simply that Asia has become really useful to all this talk of various crises, sometimes as a global boogey-man, sometimes as an emerging guru.

Update (Dec 13, 2013): Clearly, some of these issues about American-style liberal arts and the apparent or supposed lack of such a tradition in Asia are playing out in various universities’ expansions overseas, whether to build new campuses or form partnerships with foreign partner schools. From a recent story in the NY Times: “Many American colleges argue that their presence abroad helps to spread liberal values and push other societies toward openness, whereas leaving would accomplish little.” Right. That’s why this is happening. [ny times]

the new philanthropy

The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Peter Dobrin has been all over recent trends in arts philanthropy. Two examples…

“What’s clear in this environment is that if philanthropists are the sellers and recipients of philanthropy the buyers, the last few years increasingly have become a sellers’ market.” [philly.com]

“‘They are initiative-focused as opposed to civic-minded,’ says R. Andrew Swinney, president of the Philadelphia Foundation. ‘Because the entrepreneur is a businessman, he says, “Tell me how your organization is either improving lives, changing things, or being the most cost-effective.” It’s a business mentality that is taking hold of philanthropy. So it’s, “Don’t just tell me you serve 3,000 kids – tell me the impact you had on those children. What are the outcomes?”‘” [philly.com]

big data

The outfit that started the STEM program at my child’s school is into “big data analytics.” I don’t mean to single them out, but to use them as a door into this larger world.

As a mentor once said during an AHA panel we once did together at the dawn of the digital humanities (at least for me), “When the creator talks, we should listen.” And then he quoted Tim Berners-Lee. So we should start with “The Semantic Web.” (Scientific American)

There are “knowledge engineers” and “semantic web engineers.” (AKSW)

I had never heard of any of this until today.

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism: neoliberalism “holds that the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market. This requires technologies of information creation and capacities to accumulate, store, transfer, analyse, and use massive databases to guide decisions in the global marketplace. Hence neoliberalism’s intense interest in and pursuit of information technologies (leading some to proclaim the emergence of a new kind of ‘information society’)” (3-4).