The Artificial Boundaries Between ‘Arts’ and ‘STEM’

It has been a while since I have blogged (on this site at least), as I have been knee-deep in the first few months of my PhD. However, a mini-Twitter storm over these comments by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has prompted me to chip in my tuppence worth.

The timing of Ms Morgan’s comments are a little strange, long after A-level choices for the current Year 12 have been decided, and the points seem similar to the annual media frenzy over ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects. The argument goes along the expected lines – future earnings, what ’employers want’ – and advocates for each side rush in to defend their chosen subject areas…But all of this is missing the point – it is artificial, and rather unhelpful, to polarise the Arts/Humanities and STEM.

Let me lay my cards on the table, although my GCSE subjects were relatively broad: languages, chemistry, maths, history etc., I studied arts and humanities subjects at A-level (I considered the embryonic Computer Science A-level, but at the time a GCSE in Physics was a pre-requisite) and at degree level – Ancient History and English. However, I am not about to jump into a rant about how Arts subjects are x and STEM subjects are y.

Realistically, the boundaries of subjects are blurred – increasingly so the further you go in education. Media Studies (a popular whipping boy) for example, can include the use of complex editing and image manipulation software – surely this is technology? An experimental physicist with brilliant ideas will not get very far if they cannot express themselves coherently in the written and spoken word.

With the school leaving age increasing to 17, and 18 from Summer 2015, personally I think that all students should take Maths or Statistics as well as a more English based subject (i.e. one with a strong literacy content) up to this age – not necessarily as A-levels. It would also be prudent for them to learn to code in at least one programming language.

Now, as a PhD student studying 19th Century literature and Digital Humanities, this blurring is even more apparent. Many of the articles I read include complex statistics, I am learning to code using R in order to carry out my analysis – is this Literature, or Statistics, or Technology? Or perhaps all three? Digital preservation and presentation of artefacts, GIS, and the ability to manipulate data are becoming increasingly evident in many fields. Perhaps it is about time that we stop trying to divide the subjects,  stop propagating the myth that you are only good at Arts OR STEM, Maths OR English, that boys are good at x and girls are good at y?

The best interests of our students will be served by them taking a broad range of subjects, rather than focusing entirely on one small area, and this means that school timetables need to make this varied choice of subjects a possibility, which may mean increased government funding.  This would more effectively prepare them for further education and employment than a current system which seeks to narrow the choices to Arts or STEM. We are not helping our students to propagate the myth that ‘Arts’ and ‘STEM’ live in separate boxes, experience in industry and higher education will soon show how artificial these boundaries really are.

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