by James Bailey |

Hats off to our 300-year-old STEM curriculum. Its ability to entrench itself is awesome. Self Schooling ran a small—albeit expensive—experiment at the start of the school year. For three months we reached out to journalists, looking for ones who would like to write about the curriculum. There is a lot of material available, but there was zero interest. Nobody wanted to write about it, assumedly because nobody wants to read about it. Whence this heroic ability to stay beneath the radar?

Partaking Of the Sacred

The collapse of any shared sense of “truth” in the public sphere seems to have increased demand for the curiously pure form of it that the schools curriculum offers. Euclid for troubled times, if you will.

No question that religion and the so-called exact sciences were codependent in colonial times. It was a given that God was inscrutable, and beyond the reach of any human mind. Fortunately, the human mind back then was not the only tool available. It had a companion “soul” that even lived on after the mind died. The soul, not the mind, was the immortal seat of reasoning. Hence that reasoning power became the most-trusted clue to how God went about whatever God went about. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) mantra of “reasoning and sense making” has its origin in colonial times. Since it was clear that God was consistent and unwilling to brook contradiction, material that exhibited a similar absence of contradiction took on, and still takes on, a God-like status.

The Euclidean echo chamber of self consistency returns the favor. To John Locke, there were only two instances of truth available to us: the truth of the proofs of geometry and the truth of the proof of the existence of God. Kids whose minds had been made up to accept the former as true were primed to do the same for the latter.

Isaac Newton took the belief in his time that the infinitely large and the infinitely small verged into God's territory and rode it to his own form of immortality. (We are still seeing textbooks with him on the cover.) When he combined the two, using the infinitesimally small of calculus to address the indefinitely large of the cosmos, he placed his fluxions right in the sanctuary. 

First Among Equals?

The STEM curriculum retains this whiff of Enlightenment arrogance. It positions itself as somehow offering a more genuine form of “truth” than the teachers in any other classroom offer. The physicist Maurice Cohen could imagine no less:

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[Must we] dismiss physical science as devoid of any genuine knowledge, or as at best a merely practical device for manipulating dead things?

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It is when we see the reality that physics is indeed the practical device for manipulating dead things that we shift our focus to the much more important and interesting live things. The myth of “genuine knowledge” is not, however, the only support of the STEM curriculum. The money changers are in this temple big time. To be continued.

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