Let’s not STEM the tide of critical thinking

STEM education — that’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — is all the rage.

The idea of STEM is to use an interdisciplinary and applied approach, integrating all four fields into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications rather than teaching them as four separate and discrete subjects. The desired result is to build on 21st century competencies such as creativity, problem solving, and collaboration, thus preparing students to participate in the future labor market.

So Harvard sponsors a Global Education Innovation Initiative that includes seven STEM organizations, Columbia has a Girls in STEM Initiative, and 11 Brandeis graduate programs have received official STEM designations. The Moriah School of Englewood has a STEM lab, the Idea School at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly has a STEM syllabus, and Heichal HaTorah at the Jewish Center of Teaneck has an assistant principal for STEM. Students from the Frisch School in Paramus participated in a Cooper Union Summer STEM program, the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge and the Yavneh Academy in Paramus ran STEM nights, and just last week I received an unsolicited email about a Teaneck Jewish summer camp’s STEM program.

All this is, of course, a good thing. We live in a highly technological world, and it’s becoming more technological every day. Just ask your kids, or better yet, your grandkids. And I’m not saying this just as a former college math major. Rather, although choosing math was one of my major life mistakes, I recognize that STEM is a critical part of the future in which we very much want our children to actively and competently participate, and to do that they must be STEM-prepared.

But although I recognize all this, none of the courses I’ve been taking recently as a retired person with time on his hands has been related to STEM in any way. I’ve taken two history courses dealing with World War II and Jewish Ideas and America’s Founders, two wonderful Bible courses (an overview of the Hebrew Bible given by a kippah-wearing modern Bible scholar (!!), and a continuing course in Ezra-Nehemiah given by a more Jewishly traditional Bible scholar — both courses are very different from each other as well as from the numerous Bible courses I took during my 16 years of yeshiva education), and an ongoing series of lectures on Jewish law and philosophy. And in all these classes the only relevant number was the Roman numeral II in the World War course.

Naturally, these choices mirrored my personal preferences and interests. But they also reflected my strong belief that humanities courses form the bedrock upon which a high-level education rests. And this feeling was strengthened by the most recent lectures I attended (virtually) — the well-known course called Justice, given by Harvard’s professor of government, Michael Sandel.

The course, available not only in Cambridge but also on iTunes U and Boston’s WGBH PBS station, is one of Harvard’s most popular, taken in some years by more than 1,000 students. It’s described on Harvard’s website as an exploration and critical analysis of classical and contemporary theories of justice, and includes discussions of present-day applications such as income distribution, same-sex marriage, and human and property rights, as well as such historical applications like slavery and the draft, and theoretical issues like the trolley car problem.

There’s lots of serious substance — in-depth analyses of philosophical ideas of Aristotle, Locke, Bentham, Mill, Rawls, and Nozick, some of which I actually remember from college, some I’ve forgotten, and much I never knew. And Kant, lots and lots of Kant, whose often complex and dense thoughts Sandel, a spellbinding philosopher and teacher, unravels and makes intelligible.

But it’s the discussions that impact my mind and raise my spirit. And although the sessions are given in a large theater, a classroom where the students who are speaking have to use a hand-held microphone, it sometimes feels like a small seminar around a large conference room table attended by a dozen or so students.

Regarding the students, let’s face it — many Harvard undergrads are extremely bright and articulate. And Sandel, employing a Socratic teaching method with consummate skill, plays upon these traits to bring to light the complexities of the issues with which they are grappling.

Unfailingly polite, always asking the participant’s name and then referring to him or her by that name throughout the discussion, and despite the large numbers of students in the class often in later lectures and discussions as well, Sandel asks tough questions — sometimes unanswerable ones — and probes and prods until ideas are clarified, even if final answers or conclusions are often never reached.

To take one example, I’m interested in the question of affirmative action in college admissions, and I have read a great deal about it. So I was fascinated to listen to a discussion of that controversial and complex issue among an amazingly diverse group of Harvard students to whom this question was very personal. Should affirmative action be used? Good question; let’s discuss. And Sandel guided that discussion with a gentle, yet at the same time, tough questioning hand.

I finally realized that while the class tackled philosophical issues of justice in its broadest sense, what Sandel is really teaching — brilliantly and sometimes beneath the radar — is critical thinking. Students learn that pat answers don’t cut it. They have to explain their opinions, defend their thoughts, justify their positions, support their arguments. I think, I feel, I believe is not enough; students are challenged by why? What if I change the facts a bit? How do you respond to your fellow student’s argument? He forces them to think. And they do.

But it’s even more than that. In teaching political philosophy he’s also seriously talking to his students about values like ethics, virtue, duty, loyalty, and politics of the common good. He’s doing what he calls trying to bring “moral clarities to the alternatives we confront as democratic citizens.”

And that’s what makes this type of course so important for everyone. STEM is critical, of course, for scientists, techies, engineers, and mathematicians, just as medical, law, and business courses are essential for doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. But all of them would benefit, substantially benefit, from a course like Justice.

What profession doesn’t need leaders who, while dealing with complex problems, employ critical thinking, keep an open mind, and believe in the necessity of listening to and seriously considering other arguments? And what doctor, lawyer, or businessperson hasn’t been confronted by ethical and moral issues that go beyond the four corners of their professional training?

Perhaps even more important for the country as a whole, STEM and other professionals are part of the citizenry who need to address the complex alternatives that are outside their particular specialties but confront our nation. And as such citizens, all would benefit from an education that provides a pathway to searching for answers to these challenges.

I’m happy that STEM education is being taken so seriously not only by our educators and educational institutions but also by students, as demonstrated by a recent letter to the New York Times from an eighth-grader entitled Get More Girls into STEM. But as I continue to search the internet for classes to fill my time and my mind, I hope I’ll find humanities courses that will, in the words of Derek Bok, “work in subtle ways to create a web of knowledge that will illumine problems and enlighten judgment on innumerable occasions in my life.”

In STEM it’s usually the conclusions that are most critical. In humanities, though, it’s often the journey, not the destination, that illuminates our world.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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