Groundless at The Academy

From STEM to STREAMS, There’s Still a Void Where the Philosophical Foundation Should Be

Dr. Avi Kak, Electrical and Computer Engineering professor at Purdue, worries about his colleagues in the English department. In a letter to the editor at The Purdue Exponent (an independent student news service at Purdue University), Kak wrote, “Why our English department deserves more respect.”

He is concerned that respect has been lost for teachers outside of “STEM” – science, technology, engineering, and math. Kak says he came to Purdue to “work in a university, not a trade school.” He explains:

You need professors (and graduate student instructors) to teach students what it means to read well, to write well, to think well, to appreciate the human condition and its complexities through exposure to art, literature, poetry and so on.

Dr. Kak cares for what universities call “the humanities.” In much of higher education the chief components of study have been widely split into two categories: the sciences and humanities. Since the earliest years in the 21st century the acronym STEM has seen additions. “STEAM” added the arts, “STREAM” added reading (as place holder for all communication skills), and “STREAMS” added social sciences at the end.

Based on Kak’s experience it would seem that the additional letters are imperative. The arts, communication, and social sciences can be productively wedded to the sciences.  The engineering professor says he “frequently” encounters STEM college and graduate students

who are severely lacking in their communication abilities. The best of these students are well conversant with the formulas, the equations and the computer programs that implement those formulas and equations. But when you ask these students to explain what they know without using too much technical jargon, they become inarticulate.

Communication of knowledge is imperative. For the sake of full disclosure, I teach in the English department at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI). Students can leave our writing program with the “communication abilities” Dr. Kak wishes for his students.

Further, Kak complains that “a large majority of” of STEM students cannot explain “in a conversation” the how of their projects:

The students we produce are good at following orders in the execution of the projects, but unable to argue the merits of what it is they are working on.

Why is it so important that a STEM major should be able to communicate? To begin, Dr. Kak says, “much of STEM is about solving problems in the service of the humanity.” He then generally describes the need of humanities’ study:

However, if as a student you are severely lacking in the more humanistic aspects of your education, it's going to be difficult for you to construct mental narratives (let alone spoken and written narratives) about where you would want to go with what you know today, about the directions in which you would want to push the current state of the knowledge.

So, the professor is now suggesting that “mental narratives,” something I would call “worldviews,” are important in the sciences. And here Dr. Kak gets to the root of the matter: the necessity of expanding beyond simply “the humanities” to “inculcate . . . values in life.” Kak warns, otherwise, "your thinking is likely to be dominated by your baser instincts, such as those for just profit and dominance."

From the start, Dr. Kak is making assumptions about the sciences and humanities that cannot be addressed by either university field. Kak speaks about “the human condition,” “merits,” “narratives,” “values,” and “baser instincts.”

Many university professors would believe their view of the humanities addresses each and every one of those subjects. But the entities to which these words and phrases refer are ontological concerns. They lack grounding, and hence any moral force, unless they derive their meaning from the beginning and being of humanity. Whether he is aware of it or not, each of Kak’s concerns are dependent upon certain presuppositions.

He is right about the need for the humanities in the university setting. What is missing, however, is a direct link to the origin of those interests – our human condition, the stories we tell, the beliefs we hold, and why our thinking must overcome the “baser instincts.”

What is missing, what is needed in the university, the idea that should suffuse every study in higher education is, “Why?” Why are we doing this? Why is this important? Why should I care? It is one thing to be able to communicate about your field of inquiry; it is an altogether other concern to understand the reason, meaning, and purpose behind it. In my classes I teach students that being able to answer the “Why?” question is essential to our humanness. We may come to different conclusions, but we must understand the source of our “Why?”

Several Hebraic-Christian principles can undergird our thinking regarding Dr. Kak’s concerns:

  1. Science is a product of human observation of the created world. Science is able to answer, “Can we do it?” but not “Should we do it?” Any concerns about humanity’s “baser instincts” must be addressed by ethics, a field outside the purview of science.
  1. The Humanities explore the individual and social components of being persons. Humanities is able to answer, “What are our cultural differences?” but not “Why are our cultural differences important?” Cultural distinctives exist but are not necessarily equivalent.
  1. Both humanities and the sciences in the university lack the capacity for coherence – the sustaining metanarrative that gives an understanding of how “the one and the many fit together,” which was the original concern of the uni (one) -versity (many).

Only the Trinitarian Hebraic-Christian worldview can adequately address these and a myriad of “Why?” questions. Apart from that, the foundation is lacking, no matter what educational acronym is chosen. Ultimately any form of STEM to STREAMS is meaningless without GOD.

has taught junior high school through PhD students over four decades, in both Christian and public education contexts. He has a Master of Theology in Old Testament, PhD in Social Science research, and just finished another Master’s in English. He is a book review editor for Christian Education Journal. Mark has written or contributed to nine curricula and books. He has also authored scores of peer-reviewed journal articles and encyclopedia essays, and maintains online writings at www.markeckel.com.

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