Full STEAM Ahead!

At the recently concluded Brexit referendum in the UK, it is estimated that only 36 percent of people aged 18-24 voted, when the decision to leave or remain in the EU impacts the youth most. Young people who did vote, did so overwhelmingly for ‘Remain’ while the overall outcome was in favour of ‘Leave’ begging the question if the voting age should have been lowered to 16, as was the case in the 2014 Scottish referendum. This is anecdotal but on BBC news I heard some young people say that they didn’t think through their choice as they figured how could their one vote matter!

Low voter turnout of 50% – 60% has become the norm in most national elections today and voter apathy is especially high amongst the youth. But democracy works only when its citizens vote, and vote with some clarity of consequences of their choice. So how to get more people to cast their vote, sensibly?

One option for a democracy is to adopt a law akin to the Australian law that makes it mandatory for eligible citizens to register and vote in all elections, by-elections, and referendums. If they fail to do so they have to pay a fine and if they fail to pay the fine they can be convicted and jailed. Does this work? Well, in the 2013 Federal Elections in Australia the voter turnout was over 93%

But compulsory voting does not necessarily mean voting with awareness of consequences of choice. Another option that addresses the issue of voting with awareness is educating citizens of a democracy on why and how they should practice their franchise. And, this brings me to STEM and STEAM.

Over the last decade, STEM has become a popular acronym in the educational rhetoric. It stands for the study of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths and is often quoted as a panacea, a ‘tabeez’ that will magically solve the problem of unemployability in the age of intelligent machines. But now a new term is slowly coming into fashion – STEAM, which is STEM, with an ‘A’ added for Arts and its advocates want Art & Design to be the centrepiece of STEM education in order to add the element of innovation to STEM.

I personally think that the ‘A’ in STEAM education should stand for a very inclusive definition of Arts – study of Liberal Arts that include languages, music, aesthetics, philosophy, psychology, history, and humanities. You could argue that with such a broad definition of Arts in a STEAM curriculum what is left? Nothing!

And, that is my point. Education means preparing a student for life, not a subset of life.

The Latin phrase for Liberal Arts is ‘artes liberales’ and ‘liberales’ means, ‘worthy of a free person’. In classical antiquity, Liberal Arts meant subjects and skills essential to ‘know’ so that a free person could take an active part in civic life. Today Economics and its still more limited dimension ‘learn to earn’ has hijacked the education agenda. Imagine the future of STEM only education – students grow up to be highly employable but incapable of sensibly taking part in the civic life of a democracy, and worse, incapable of deep self-awareness hence raising the probability of leading a stressed and unhappy life.

Referendums also point to another possibility – a move away from Representative Democracy to Direct Democracy. Representative Democracy, when an election is held once every 4 or 5 years and people choose their representative to the Parliament who in turn make policies, is a sensible choice when holding elections is an expensive proposition. But taking a cue from the hunt for talent competitions on television, where people vote using their mobile phones, it is not hard to imagine a future where all important legislation is decided by referendums, with voters casting their vote using a mobile phone – Direct Democracy.

If you think Direct Democracy is a dangerous idea just consider the, not very hard to guess, reason for voter apathy – voters don’t find a leader worthy of representing them. Like right now in London people over at The Globe Theatre are crying foul. All the Shakespearean drama has shifted to Westminster. And, we the people are wondering what Mr. Gove, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Corbyn and many others in politics are doing in Westminster. They should be in the West End. Given a choice between leaders who are driven by personal ambition or dogmatic beliefs, or a Parliament that is more often than not disrupted, as in India, and Direct Democracy, I would vote for the latter.

The increasing use of referendums, lowering of voting age, voter education and sensitisation, these factors alone make a case for adding Liberal Arts education to a STEM curriculum. Add to that the role education in the Liberal Arts plays to foster the basic human spirit – to learn and to know (including Know Thyself), I think there is a strong case for taking education full STEAM ahead.