STEAM Vent…or, My Art/Science Problem

With sudden frequency in the last few weeks, at various STEM-related events  I’ve encountered the idea that arts programming would be a valuable addition to science, technology, engineering and mathematics pedagogy.  If STEM programming  is meant to draw as-yet-uninterested young people into technical occupations, or disinterested taxpayers into supporting science education, STEAM seems intended further to entice these audiences  by highlighting the fun and beauty and sensory adventure inherent in those realms.  In almost every invocation of this kind, the arts are  seen to be synonymous with creativity and innovation.  Science educator Martin Storksdieck, of the National Academy of Sciences, nicely summarizes these aims of STEAM advocates in his post, “STEM or STEAM?”.

Until last night, I hadn’t put a great deal of thought into STEAM. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I had a previous career in the fine arts.  Analyzing the claims (both persuasive and not) that educators and curators have historically made for the cultural, societal and intellectual benefits of exposure to the arts felt like something I’d already done a lot of.  Not to mention: my brain has been taxed  just by trying to understand how STEM education is playing out in America; I didn’t feel I could take on STEAM.

But last night, I heard a lecture by an artist committed to STEAM activities that has prompted me to think and blog about this trend. Rebecca Kamen is a sculptor who, among other projects, has been helping high school science students integrate art into their research.   Her career has been spent drawing on science as inspiration for her artwork, often with the support of scientific institutions (as a fellowship recipient or visitor).  She spoke last night at the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS) about her career, and most recent work with collections of the American Philosophical Society and Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.  She was enthusiastic and clearly deeply moved by her encounters with scientific discovery and its depiction. She genuinely seems to wish the same awe-filled and energizing experience for her audiences.  And I left the talk worried about STEAM.

First, let me say that I really like a lot of Kamen’s sculptures. She looks at scientific inscriptions from all eras (say, an ancient Chinese astronomical text or the familiar Periodic Table of the Elements) and renders the forms she sees there as looser, almost organic,  hand-hewn three-dimensional shapes.  With rough surfaces and cartoon-like contours, these quirky objects felt to me, when I first saw them, like the scientific products of a very non-scientific civilization; they are both mysterious and funny, aspiring to credibility in their imitation of meticulous scientific illustrations, and comic in their soft, smeared versions of those formal conventions…. Above all, her sculptures seemed to pastiche all scientific projects throughout  history with equal humor and tenderness, perhaps reminding us that one era’s cutting-edge science is another’s antiquity. Had I not heard her talk, I would have presumed that Kamen’s work was meant to shake up our veneration of science… to remind us that even the most esoteric  and exalted products of human imagination can, in a certain light, assume the naivete of the kindergartener’s  scribble or the expressive urgency of the first cave painting.

Rebecca Kamen, Hive, 2008

But in the course of her talk, it became clear that for Kamen,  there is no historical perspective, no irony, no relativism. She told of her “awe and wonder” at the visual representations that have accompanied science through time, and spoke repeatedly of being moved to tears by the “beauty” and “magic” of scientific discovery.  Let’s put aside for today the gap between my initial impressions of the work and the artist’s intentions; it’s her messages about art in the realm of science that I want to examine.

Rebecca Kamen, Across the Way, 2004

In that unabashed adoration for her sources of inspiration (and by extension, for her patrons), I heard something that bodes ill for STEAM. I fear the injection of arts into STEM teaching may be a way of shutting down criticality about science and technology, and discouraging reflexivity among scientific practitioners (whether students or professionals),  instead bringing the high-culture cache of fine arts to a realm already steeped in privilege and self-congratulation.

A colleague at the talk, Darin Hayton,  was troubled by Kamen’s historical errors, such as the mischaracterization of the scientific illustrations she celebrated.  (You can read his own blog post about it here.) A number of these  errors were obvious to the historians of science in the room with knowledge of the periods and practices to which Kamen referred. For Hayton, those errors point to Kamen’s elision of the  literary strategies and political conditions that have historically brought science into its authoritative cultural position. Another colleague, by contrast, felt that this artist simply, “Makes her own context.”  True enough, but I think that is exactly what worries me about Kamen’s program.  I think in putting historical and cultural specificity out of sight, Kamen discourages us from questioning how science deploys beauty for its own ends, or how our very notions of beauty (or  “genius” or “creativity”) arise from contingent cultural conditions…conditions with important social ramifications.

For over 200 years in America,  we’ve heard arguments for the automatically humanizing, not to say democratizing,  effects of bringing artists into scientific and technological realms.  But more often than not,  this “collaboration” has served to flatter and elevate science and technology.  In its more critical forms, art has rarely been welcomed into  the science museum, corporate headquarters,  or (I suspect) STEM curriculum.  One major exception, well worth revisiting online,  was the 2008 “Molecules that Matter” show, curated at Skidmore  College in partnership  with (and displayed at), the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a setting which has often shown far less provocative art-about-science.

In that show, the uncertain and even disturbing social features of science were displayed alongside the lovely and enticing. Many more wonderfully challenging art works about science and technology, sometimes created in collaboration with non-artists, are readily found in art studios, galleries and museums. If STEM is really to open its constituent disciplines  to more equitable, more self-critical practices, awestruck adoration of science and technology  is the last thing we need.  That’s what science too often provides for itself. Instead we should be asking: For whom is science beautiful, and why, in a culture? Who gets to say what beauty is? Whose voices go unheard? In short: We need the disruptive, transgressive,  or at least, open inquiry that art can bring to its subjects, not its flattery.

Our Town: “Equity” in Lower Merion

I am privileged to live in a district with superb public schools. But, despite its proximity to some of the most affluent suburbs of Philadelphia and access to significant tax revenues,  this is also a school system, like so many others in the nation,  with a documented achievement gap between African American students and those of other backgrounds.  A group of parents who find that gap unacceptable and believe it to be a product of systematic discrimination have brought a lawsuit against the district.  (A request for a class action lawsuit ended with a judge’s denial in 2009, but a suit brought by eight families now moves ahead.)  These families and their supporters joined to form the non-profit Concerned Black Parents (CBP).

Things have improved in recent years, but the gap persists, according to CBP. Troubling patterns  remain:  Some African American students in the middle- and high schools of Lower Merion School District (LMSD) are finding themselves tracked into special education classes when they don’t need those interventions,  while too few black students are being enrolled in the advanced classes that would serve them well.  Disproportionately low percentages of black students in LMSD attend college.   Among those black LMSD students who do pursue post-secondary education, disproportionately high numbers head towards community colleges rather than four-year programs.  CBP also points out in a recent statement that:

…African Americans graduate from Lower Merion (too many through social promotions and special education) and go onto college only to face the prerequisite condition that they pass remediation courses for which they do not accumulate college credit.
* African American students also have a huge SAT score gap and a Grade Point Average gap, which stunts their acceptance to the schools their peers gain admission to.
* African American girls are outperforming African American boys. Ask why!

–Concerned Black Parents, Sept. 6,2011

Folks on both sides of the debate agree that a number of tireless and inventive LMSD teachers and administrators have worked hard to redress racial and other forms of discrimination in the district. Nearly everyone acknowledges welcome results of that work. Yet, those who support the discrimination lawsuit see a public school system that nonetheless regularly consigns minority students to “substandard education.”  Meanwhile, some other people in our township detect no such pattern. That group sees the lawsuit as unfounded and as a burden on taxpayers.   The term “resegregation” has empirical value for the first contingent, but in the eyes of the second it is uncalled for and inflammatory.  I have seen defenders of LMSD policies recoil from that word at more than one neighborhood gathering on the issue.

The legal complexities of this case are many and I am in no way qualified to parse those. But as a historian of race in American education, I want to talk about the multiple meanings that “equity” has lately assumed in our township. Mapping these meanings has helped me see why CBP pursues its suit, and why lawsuits around matters of race are still needed in our country.

Clearly,  those who defend the district don’t aim to promote racial discrimination. Yet,  I’m not sure we should assume that everyone involved in the dispute really does have the same endpoint in mind. I want to suggest that for some who speak for LMSD, some basic features of the system are working just fine;  they would say those aspects of the status quo require no reform.

Here’s what I’m thinking of:

Representatives of the district, not surprisingly, routinely offer counterarguments to the charges of discrimination.  Last week, as counsel for the plaintiffs made new documents available for public viewing, Doug Young,  Lower Merion School District’s  Information  Director, spoke to media outlets about the case.  Speaking to NBC Philadelphia, as reported by David Chang, Mr. Young suggested first that there is no systemic phenomenon to discuss:

The plaintiffs’ claims relate to specific, individual special education disputes from years ago. The assertion that they are somehow connected to biased treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit.

To bolster that point, Mr. Young added that the district “utilize[s] multiple criteria and methods to eliminate any potential for cultural biases.”  But we could ask: If discrepancies still exist in African American achievement within LMSD schools (which nobody involved in the matter denies), by what measure has the district determined these “criteria and methods” to be working? [My STS colleagues will now be nodding and saying to themselves: “The experimenter’s regress!”]

Next Mr. Young says:

Additionally, the suit completely ignores and even diminishes the success of African American students in Lower Merion School District.

That claim proceeds from a deeply flawed premise: That critiques of  current racial discrimination constitute a denigration of  previous minority attainments. But in what way is a search for justice a denigration of others’ attainments? How are the purported “cause” and “effect” here even connected? One might just as easily say that the CBP parents’ lawsuit adds lustre to the attainments of successful African American students because it emphasizes the inequitable conditions those kids have overcome. (Though that too would be a facile and misleading claim.)

With that last quote, Mr. Young characterizes the motives of CBP and he does so with selective logic. In turn, he characterizes LMSD, also using selective logic. He indicates that test scores for black students in the district have risen in recent years, along with enrollment by African American students in the district’s AP and Honors classes.  Those are very welcome changes. But we learn, too, that “LMSD African American graduates are attending college at nearly twice the national rate (83% in 2011).”  I would ask: Why even measure the district’s inclusivity relative to national standards?  Why not against the goal of complete parity between minority and majority students in our district? Is our goal to end discrimination, or to deflect criticism?

Remember, too, that CBP specifies that among students who constitute that 83% we have black students attending community colleges in far higher proportions than do white college-going LMSD graduates. Perhaps Mr. Young wishes to highlight progress made by the district towards racial inclusion. But he sounds a self-congratulatory note in his assertion that, “the District should be receiving awards for these efforts, not lawsuits.”

The impression given by Mr. Young here is that the district has understood the problem, and done enough to address discriminationin fact, done MORE than enough,  to the point where awards are deserved.  I can see how such apparent self-assurance could undermine CBP’s  faith in the district’s commitment to eliminating further educational inequities.  Can the district’s leaders and spokespeople instead persuade us that  they see the lingering achievement gap as entirely unacceptable, every last vestige of it?  Then we may be more confident that lawsuits are not needed because educational equity, not merely a relative lack of inequity,  is LMSD’s goal.

Our Town: “Equity” in Lower Merion

I am privileged to live in a district with superb public schools. But, despite its proximity to some of the most affluent suburbs of Philadelphia and access to significant tax revenues,  this is also a school system, like so many others in the nation,  with a documented achievement gap between African American students and those of other backgrounds.  A group of parents who find that gap unacceptable and believe it to be a product of systematic discrimination have brought a lawsuit against the district.  (A request for a class action lawsuit ended with a judge’s denial in 2009, but a suit brought by eight families now moves ahead.)  These families and their supporters joined to form the non-profit Concerned Black Parents (CBP).

Things have improved in recent years, but the gap persists, according to CBP. Troubling patterns  remain:  Some African American students in the middle- and high schools of Lower Merion School District (LMSD) are finding themselves tracked into special education classes when they don’t need those interventions,  while too few black students are being enrolled in the advanced classes that would serve them well.  Disproportionately low percentages of black students in LMSD attend college.   Among those black LMSD students who do pursue post-secondary education, disproportionately high numbers head towards community colleges rather than four-year programs.  CBP also points out in a recent statement that:

…African Americans graduate from Lower Merion (too many through social promotions and special education) and go onto college only to face the prerequisite condition that they pass remediation courses for which they do not accumulate college credit.
* African American students also have a huge SAT score gap and a Grade Point Average gap, which stunts their acceptance to the schools their peers gain admission to.
* African American girls are outperforming African American boys. Ask why!

–Concerned Black Parents, Sept. 6,2011

Folks on both sides of the debate agree that a number of tireless and inventive LMSD teachers and administrators have worked hard to redress racial and other forms of discrimination in the district. Nearly everyone acknowledges welcome results of that work. Yet, those who support the discrimination lawsuit see a public school system that nonetheless regularly consigns minority students to “substandard education.”  Meanwhile, some other people in our township detect no such pattern. That group sees the lawsuit as unfounded and as a burden on taxpayers.   The term “resegregation” has empirical value for the first contingent, but in the eyes of the second it is uncalled for and inflammatory.  I have seen defenders of LMSD policies recoil from that word at more than one neighborhood gathering on the issue.

The legal complexities of this case are many and I am in no way qualified to parse those. But as a historian of race in American education, I want to talk about the multiple meanings that “equity” has lately assumed in our township. Mapping these meanings has helped me see why CBP pursues its suit, and why lawsuits around matters of race are still needed in our country.

Clearly,  those who defend the district don’t aim to promote racial discrimination. Yet,  I’m not sure we should assume that everyone involved in the dispute really does have the same endpoint in mind. I want to suggest that for some who speak for LMSD, some basic features of the system are working just fine;  they would say those aspects of the status quo require no reform.

Here’s what I’m thinking of:

Representatives of the district, not surprisingly, routinely offer counterarguments to the charges of discrimination.  Last week, as counsel for the plaintiffs made new documents available for public viewing, Doug Young,  Lower Merion School District’s  Information  Director, spoke to media outlets about the case.  Speaking to NBC Philadelphia, as reported by David Chang, Mr. Young suggested first that there is no systemic phenomenon to discuss:

The plaintiffs’ claims relate to specific, individual special education disputes from years ago. The assertion that they are somehow connected to biased treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit.

To bolster that point, Mr. Young added that the district “utilize[s] multiple criteria and methods to eliminate any potential for cultural biases.”  But we could ask: If discrepancies still exist in African American achievement within LMSD schools (which nobody involved in the matter denies), by what measure has the district determined these “criteria and methods” to be working? [My STS colleagues will now be nodding and saying to themselves: “The experimenter’s regress!”]

Next Mr. Young says:

Additionally, the suit completely ignores and even diminishes the success of African American students in Lower Merion School District.

That claim proceeds from a deeply flawed premise: That critiques of  current racial discrimination constitute a denigration of  previous minority attainments. But in what way is a search for justice a denigration of others’ attainments? How are the purported “cause” and “effect” here even connected? One might just as easily say that the CBP parents’ lawsuit adds lustre to the attainments of successful African American students because it emphasizes the inequitable conditions those kids have overcome. (Though that too would be a facile and misleading claim.)

With that last quote, Mr. Young characterizes the motives of CBP and he does so with selective logic. In turn, he characterizes LMSD, also using selective logic. He indicates that test scores for black students in the district have risen in recent years, along with enrollment by African American students in the district’s AP and Honors classes.  Those are very welcome changes. But we learn, too, that “LMSD African American graduates are attending college at nearly twice the national rate (83% in 2011).”  I would ask: Why even measure the district’s inclusivity relative to national standards?  Why not against the goal of complete parity between minority and majority students in our district? Is our goal to end discrimination, or to deflect criticism?

Remember, too, that CBP specifies that among students who constitute that 83% we have black students attending community colleges in far higher proportions than do white college-going LMSD graduates. Perhaps Mr. Young wishes to highlight progress made by the district towards racial inclusion. But he sounds a self-congratulatory note in his assertion that, “the District should be receiving awards for these efforts, not lawsuits.”

The impression given by Mr. Young here is that the district has understood the problem, and done enough to address discriminationin fact, done MORE than enough,  to the point where awards are deserved.  I can see how such apparent self-assurance could undermine CBP’s  faith in the district’s commitment to eliminating further educational inequities.  Can the district’s leaders and spokespeople instead persuade us that  they see the lingering achievement gap as entirely unacceptable, every last vestige of it?  Then we may be more confident that lawsuits are not needed because educational equity, not merely a relative lack of inequity,  is LMSD’s goal.