Redefining STEM

…or, Where have all the muses gone?

Once there were nine Muses. Now there are none. That is, as Melpomene would say if she were still around, a tragedy. To the ancients, a mousaion was a shrine to the Nine Sisters and the best minds and talent gathered there to be inspired; to us moderns, a museum is a storehouse for relics, including muses painted on clay pots. Western education (unwisely) privileges math and the sciences and that has me worried that our students will graduate with a great deal of learning yet still be short of an education. Where do they learn Song or Dance and especially Comedy? The 19th century literary critic, John Ruskin, said:

Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.

I am fretful that fewer and fewer will be able to read that last book.

I have had enough of STEM–the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics agenda. Don’t get me wrong. I’m hardly saying these aren’t important fields. I am saying other fields are equally so and just as worthy of study. At this point someone says, “Now Brad, math is beautiful, too. And there is a special relationship between math and music, you know.” I get that. But, generally speaking, no one teaches aesthetics in K12 anymore, so that baby never gets born.

As a remedy to this slide towards a nerveless culture (if “culture” can be used at all) I am suggesting a simple word swap. We keep the acronym STEM but create a new Song, Theatre, Epic (poetry) and Music agenda.

By the way, I am pleased as punch that the BC government has just given Emily Carr University (formerly Emily Carr College of Art and Design) $113 million to build a new facility.


  1. Reply
    Neil Stephenson January 25, 2013

    Hi Brad. What a great post. I had never considered the etymology of museum before. In that sense, wouldn’t it be great if we redefined schools as museums – places to be inspired. I think your post highlights two tradegies. One, the over-emphasis on the conventional STEM definition. And two, the even in the midst of a western emphasis on STEM, it’s often not opened up to students as a place of beauty, wonder and inspiration.

  2. Reply
    Bonne January 27, 2013

    It would be great if we had a Canadian counterpart to RISD’s STEM-to-STEAM effort:

    What we currently seem to have is art and design bending themselves toward’s the social sciences in order to qualify for research funding, leaving much of the humanities out in the cold.

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