We cannot glorify STEM at the expense of humanities

Tuesday May 28 2019

By MUTHONI THANG'WA
More by this Author

Many of the arguments by Kenyans that I have read for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and against the humanities are seriously flawed. Kenyans are in the habit of picking buzz words, mainly from non-governmental organisations that hold the purse strings and applying them without tailor making them to fit into the Kenyan context.

Why is the Ministry of Education not listening to the biggest stakeholders in the education sector – teachers? Yes! With an exception of children, teachers are the most important stakeholder is the education sector. Policy makers – who ideally should consist of teachers – are not stakeholders in the sector, they are influencers.

But policy makers want to play the role of both primary and secondary stakeholders in the Kenyan education sector. They cannot act in those positions and neither should they be allowed to.

The concept of STEM does not primarily refer to more students choosing those courses at university. Rather they refer to the application of these subjects in daily contexts by students. In time and by extension larger parts of the population will be able to apply STEM in their schools, homes, communities, within their environment and in industry.

It may be true that Kenya needs to increase the number of students in these fields, but these must have a direct and proportionate application in industry. Do we have industries that need workers in these fields? Students cannot be judged at university entry level only. Do we have any technical institutions that train technologists, teachers and other STEM practitioners?

The World Health Organization, for examples, prescribes a ratio of one doctor per one thousand patients. Unesco on the other hand prescribes one teacher per 42 pupils as the global average for public schools. So at any one time Kenya should have many more teachers enrolled at university in both STEM and humanities because our population demographics demand so.

If Kenya will have a population of 50 million in 2020, do we have enough hospitals to absorb a doctor workforce of fifty thousand even if we could train them within that period? In Kenya STEM education and STEM workforce are rarely discussed in conjunction and these may be the source of the unfortunate disconnect.

And this is just an analogy for logic’s sake, as it is not an accident that ‘university’ is derived from the word universe. The trainees are gaining knowledge whose application can be local and/or universal. There is no guarantee that the enrolment figures will translate to industry practitioners at the end of a period. Education is also the only pyramid that cannot be inverted in a society.

BASHING HUMANITIES

Promotion of STEM has no correlation to the now fashionable destructive bashing of the humanities. If anything, the humanities are inbuilt in culture, which every human being needs to survive and therefore STEM is heavily borrowing from the humanities in the attempt to apply its concepts in daily life.

For example, a pre-schooler using building blocks to create, or one making a wire toy whose wheels turn is also putting science into action. It is when they get into the formal education system that they are frighteningly confronted with the silo approach to learning.

Language on the other hand is both an educational subject and a cultural concept that is widely used. Language, the subject, teaches the proper use of words to apply in daily life. When we refer to conmen as televangelists, flamboyant businessmen or socialites, the application of English as a subject is flawed. Instances where the language is properly taught references to character and morality which are cultural concepts are applied as well.

We cannot forget that whole industries such as manufacturing, construction, agriculture, transport, hospitality although anchored on STEM are run on a daily basis by the so called humanities, who are required to develop on the spot time-bound solutions by applying their training rather than using the training itself.

So whereas it might be a technical innovation that will put the next high-end phone in the market. It will be psychologists, anthropologists and sociologist who will research the market and analyse the demographics to determine which cultural groups, social class and income levels will constitute the market for such a gadget.

BIG FOUR AGENDA

The country’s Big Four Agenda - housing, universal and affordable health care, food security and manufacturing will require an integrated approach from both ends of the stick – education and industry. This will require the input of both STEM and humanities, STEM being required at the tail end of achieving these grand plans.

The science centre at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation has started demonstrations that provide evidence that the sciences, mathematics and innovations are part of everyday life. They are educative, interactive, and simple and utilise locally available and affordable materials. It might be useful for policy makers in education to pay them a visit.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa