The annual AHA meeting is this weekend, putting forth a program that not only pays considerable attention to pedagogy but also the rapidly expanding field of digital humanities. Digital humanities, a bridge between technology and history, is one of many components within the broader historical profession that engages with STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. So why do certain education policies seem so determined to split them apart?
Back in September, then Education Minister of Australia Christopher Pyne (now serving as Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science) put into effect a new digital curriculum for elementary school that replaces history and geography as stand-alone subjects with coding.[i] The “significant changes,” which will “resolve the overcrowding in the primary curriculum” are, according to Pyne, key to Australia’s “productivity and economic wellbeing.” [ii] The statements do not directly say that history and geography will be swapped for computer programming but examining the available new curriculum structures shows it to be the case. The limited media coverage I found points to the same conclusion. But at the same time, teachers are instructed to give increased “references to Western influences in Australia’s history.” Hmm.
Talking about western influence outside of the western hemisphere is a subject for another post, as well as the notion of teaching history across the curriculum. Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) of course has a widespread following at colleges and universities around the United States: it would also be interesting to see the development of a HAC, too. But for now, “hacking” of a different nature. Undoubtedly, the importance of encouraging STEM, especially for women and underrepresented groups frequently stereotyped as outsiders of those fields, goes beyond the economic dimensions and provides strong intellectual as well as social benefits. Computer programming is (nominally) financially lucrative, useful in both the public and private sectors, and in its instruction, provides an intellectual foundation of critical thinking skills that could be applied outside of the computer screen. My project, by way of the history of intellectual property, looks at the development of STEAM, particularly the T, quite a bit, so I find its encouragement and support, as well as its past development, very important.
It is not totally clear to me though why this encouragement needs to be at the expense of the social sciences and/or humanities. There are only so many hours in the day and primary education can only be expected to cover so much, in Australia or anywhere else. And sure, academia works on disciplinary categorization. But, history and STEM are compatible and intertwined, particularly in their emphasis on problem solving and thought-structure. Geography, in the eighteenth century one of the most lucrative forms of science, is pushing new boundaries today with urban planning and data mapping. Moreover, history and the social sciences emphasize the writing and communication skills that make coding and programming accessible to the broader public.
There are educational trends just like those in any other domain (just ask Galileo or Pythagoras) and as far as trends go, the increased interest in STEM, especially from historians, is one of the best out there (no offense, Instagram). The issue I see with the Australian curriculum revision, and Australia is not the only country to do this, comes from the unnecessary separation of science and art. Just last week, Old Navy (thankfully) pulled a shirt advocating that toddlers should aspire to be astronauts, not artists. As a proud alumni of Space Camp AND someone who sees art in my academic pursuits, its baffling that this boundary has so permeated our popular culture. I understand that something’s ‘got to give’ when you’re trying to teach as much as possible in a short time but I still worry about the implication of the ‘either or,’ in the classroom or anywhere else.