Challenging the Divide

We need to move from STEM to STEAM.

Our secondary education system in South Australia, from the 1950s, set out to differentiate the students studying physics, chemistry and mathematics from those studying the humanities. Too often, girls in academic high schools were encouraged to study these subjects only if they were seen to be very able. Otherwise, the humanities were for them. In this binary secondary system, with single sex vocational schools, girls to be wives, mothers and employed in industry, business or, if they got as far as Year 11. as nurses or primary school teachers, were early separated into Commercial, Craft and General. Those in Year 11 General might study physiology. That system would begin to end in 1970 but these pervasive and divisive attitudes behind it did not go away. In fact, they had been reinforced by advertising when Australia gained television. [Remember those good housewives!] My direct knowledge is of the South Australian system, but this separation was symptomatic of the whole country.

The fact that those attitudes did not go away is present in this article in the Higher Education section of The Australian, 23rd January 2019, headed ‘The Sciences and the Humanities’. I begin this blog with quotations from this interview of Professor Elanor Huntington by Sean Powell. She is the Dean of Engineering and Computer Science at the Australian National University. “Elanor Huntington says she has a far-sighted vision for humanity’s future, and she wants to do her bit to ensure that humanists have a say in the way the world will be shaped.”

She wants, “Researchers and scholars with more of an interest in the humanities [to] consider boosting their science and maths skills in order to bring their arts abilities to the table.”

“The false dichotomy that insists students should be either maths or humanities scholars with an inherent bent towards one or the other is the product of deeply ingrained and often gender-specific traditions no longer relevant to today’s world,” Huntington believes.

How right she is. I am so glad she is saying this so clearly in 2019 when we are nearly a fifth of the way through the 21st century. The fact that she is having to say it is a reminder of the great intellectual cost of that division. That is why I have set up this blog. For the future of our world, we need to get rid of that divide.

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