STEAM: the Age of a New Humanism

19 September 2017

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math as subjects of study. The term refers to specially focussed teaching and learning in these fields and usually includes additional educational activities across all grade levels. Add the Arts in the mix and you obtain STEAM. 

There is a growing trend supporting the inclusion of the Arts because it is now acknowledged that true innovation can only be achieved by the combination of the minds of a scientist, technologist or engineer along with that of an artist or a designer. As early photographer Charles Nègre beautifully (and somehow controversially) stated: “Where science ends, art begins”. Yet there remains a strong cultural chasm in government policies, and too often in public opinion too, between Science and the Arts, between those who favour progress through technology, and the intellectuals and artists who have little understanding in and even remarkable hostility for the modern industrial society. 

Back in 1959, in a famous and influential lecture at the University of Cambridge, British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow explained that the intellectual life of the western society was split into Two Cultures: the sciences and the humanities. He argued that this was “a major hindrance to solving the world's problems”. Far from me to try and answer the question whether we are beyond the Two Cultures or not – but it is striking that the clash seems to live on, despite a society that has changed in so many ways over the past 70 years. If what has been called a Third Culture has emerged, with scientists and thinkers directly communicating their thoughts and research into plain English to the general public, and the passage of time has done much to reduce the cultural divide as noticed by Stefan Collini in 1993, it has not been removed entirely and communication between those two groups is still imperfect to say the least. Today’s complex – and sometimes conflicting – relationship between the industrial approach of new technology engineers and companies and the more “organic approach” of the artist is a shining example of that. 

However, the only road to designing and implementing a sustainable and humanist society is to resolve the tensions between Science and the Arts, Engineering and Creativity, and somewhat between Tradition and Modernity. If C. P. Snow claimed the post-World War II British educational system was over-rewarding the humanities at the expense of scientific and engineering education, I believe we are now in the opposite situation as can be witnessed on two main topics: Education and Funding. 

The UK government recently implemented the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), a performance measure for secondary schools that requires students to take a suite of seven to eight GCSEs in academic subjects - English (2 GCSEs), maths, science (2-3 GCSEs), a modern or ancient foreign language and either history or geography. Is there still room for the arts, you might ask? Well as predicted, government figures released in June reveal that the Ebacc is clearly undermining creative GSCEs with entries into creative subjects falling by 46,000 last year (a 9% drop over the past 12 months), jeopardizing the whole balance of the curriculum and putting one of our most successful global industries at risk of skill shortage. 

The Creative Industries Federation issued a statement in which their CEO John Kampfner said: “The creative industries have been identified as one of five priority sectors in the government’s industrial strategy in recognition of their economic contribution. However the Department for Education has not answered the sector’s concerns by continuing to sideline creative education in favour of academic subjects.” 

In the same release, Andrew Stanley, Head of Education Policy at the Institution of Civil Engineers committed to STEAM education and reflected on the importance of removing the duality between academic and creative subjects: “Creative and design subjects at GCSE are important routes into civil engineering. The government response does not address declining numbers taking design subjects and the benefits creative subjects bring to our skills pipeline.” 

Regarding Funding, I’d say we take a step back again and try to find inspiration in the great work of our ancestors. Vannevar Bush, an American engineer, inventor and science administrator, headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II before writing in 1945 the ‘Endless Frontier’ report to then President of the United States of America Franklin D. Roosevelt. He argued that basic research was "the pacemaker of technological progress” and that: “New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.”

Vannevar Bush managed to position science as vital to national interests and federal funding as a necessity to the advancement of knowledge in the US. But his definition of the “purest realms” evidently did not include social sciences or the Arts… His views became very influential and scientific research and development has received steady support ever since. 

Yet there is now a very strong case for the economic pertinence of funding the arts on a much greater scale and encouraging corporate investment in cultural organisations. The creative industries are the fastest growing part of the UK’s economy, contributing £87bn in GVA. The latest DCMS employment and trade statistics show that two million people are now employed within the creative industries, a 5% increase on the previous year and 25% increase since 2011. In terms of export growth, the rise is all the more remarkable – 44.3% over 5 years with a total of £21.2bn of services exported in 2015. 

And supporting the arts is also an investment in social dividends. A study by the Inter-American Development Bank showed that every dollar invested in the El Sistema, the publicly funded education programme in Venezuela, was reaping in about $1.68 in social dividends, showing the concrete benefits of introducing music training into the curriculum. I admit that further studies should be conducted to refine these numbers and that the increasingly chaotic situation in Venezuela is somewhat casting a shadow over this inspiring initiative – but we must nonetheless acknowledge that there is now clear evidence that investing in the arts is economically sensible. A no brainer even. 

So why do recent statistics by the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) show a drop in government funding of 11% since 2010 and a reduction of local authority funding of 18%?

Now I hear those who will argue that despite the cuts, we have seen that the creative industries have never thrived as much as they have in the past 5 to 10 years. And that's true: the financial crisis and successive government policies have pushed cultural organisations to be more innovative, bold and resilient. But for how long? There is a tipping point where the irreparable will happen, where consequences on the core of our society and our social cohesion will be dramatic. In fact it has already started with the disappearance of smaller organisations, festivals, in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and in the US. It is not too late nonetheless and there is still time for our government(s) to act. 

The tech surge we are witnessing nowadays is a fantastic opportunity as long as we remember technology is a mean to an end, a tool for humanity to achieve social inclusion of every member of our society. In a recent interview on The Financial Times, Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT professor and co-author of The Second Machine Age, painted an inspiring picture of a “digital Athens” in which people had time to focus on sport and the arts. But how can you imagine, let alone design the society of tomorrow if you separate these infamous Two Cultures and don't allow both of them to equally receive the means and resources to fulfil their unquestionably entwined ambitions? 

In concrete terms, the Orchestra Tax Relief, introduced in 2016, should be expanded to include choral groups, smaller ensembles, new music production and anywhere within the creative sector where supported by evidence. Corporate funding for cultural organisations has also declined significantly since the financial crisis in 2008 while the government could instead introduce a policy in favour of corporate investment on the existing tax credit model for Research and Development (R&D). This R&D tax relief seeks to achieve an advance in overall knowledge or capability in a field of science or technology – but why should it necessarily exclude the arts, humanities and social sciences? 

In the age we live in, between economic uncertainty and political and social challenges, we need more than ever to offer a creative and risk-taking approach to problem solving if we want to address the most complex and pressing issues we are facing and build a New Humanism that will deliver a fair, sustainable and forward-thinking society.

Nicolas Nebout