The need to add innovation and humanities to STEM

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Everyone is talking about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) these days in South Africa. For sure it is true, we need to up our game in these areas at all educational levels, from primary to tertiary levels. In 2016, South Africa finished last in WEF’s mathematics and science education ranking. Clearly there is work to be done, but under the corrupt ANC government of the last decade, education was neglected, and higher education almost became a battle ground. The economy was also neglected, and now the consequences for education are dire.



We need to up our game in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but these STEM disciplines on their own are not enough. We need better humanities graduates, who graduate knowing how to do things instead of just knowing facts.

Unfortunately, education in South Africa is fundamentally broken at all levels. Education is a product of the second industrial revolution, and here we are in the fourth industrial revolution still providing education in the same way we did in the 19th Century. Even worse, in South Africa the majority of our population does not have access to good versions of even that antiquated system. Tata Nelson Mandela had high hopes for our children, who he loved very much, but corruption and lack of vision have dashed those hopes into the ground, or even into open pit toilets.

Universities are a bit better off than schools, since they are better funded and are much more exclusive in their approach. Other components of the tertiary sector are not as well off. But universities are still teaching facts, especially at undergraduate level.

Let me say that again in case you missed its significance. Universities are still teaching facts. I find that remarkable. Universities were created in the scarcity era, and back then facts were scarce. Facts are no longer scarce. Whole courses and whole departments centred around dishing out meagre helpings of things that are utterly and totally abundant. How utterly fucked up is that? It is like standing in a room full of cooked rice pleading for someone to give you a bowl of rice!

That is just how nonsensical education has become, and South Africa embraces that absurdity.

What we should be doing is creating learning opportunities for young people in which the scarce elements are taught, not the abundant ones. Let the abundant ones serve the scarce ones. So what is scarce?

What is scarce is doing. Knowing how to discover, think, plan, cooperate, and do – those are the things that are scarce. Most people graduate from university and have no clue how to discover new information, or even how to evaluate information. They have not experienced any meaningful thinking or planning, and have limited exposure to cooperation as a means to accomplish goals. They may know a lot, but with some exceptions, they do not know how that knowledge came to be, or how to create their own.

I have been thinking about this for a while, but when my Facebook Friend Ian Schroeder from the University of the Western Cape posted comments on the World Economic Forum article “Is the future of education learning by doing?” it got me thinking. Ian was advocating for innovation and talking about the need to foster stronger STE(A)M in which the A stands for Arts.

I couldn’t agree more, but we need innovation and learning by doing in all the humanities, not just the arts. There is a narrative going round at the moment that implies, perhaps unintentionally, that you are useless if you don’t do maths. There are thousands of graduates of universities throughout South Africa who have little or no maths background. This is seen as terrible, almost a lost generation.

To what extend does our narrative calling for better maths and science education (which we surely need) also devalue the humanities?

It is not. But we do need to change the narrative and invest in this lost generation (or two lost generations). But they have been taught what is not scarce, and not taught what is scarce. In addition to programmes to fix primary, secondary and tertiary education, we also need to recover this generation help them acquire what is scarce, to build on the abundance that they have been taught. And teaching abundance as if it were scarce has to stop.

There is plenty of room for innovation in the humanities. Humanities graduates have abundant opportunity to innovate, not just in technological areas, but in core areas of human life. Humanities graduates who are able to think and understand are also invaluable in technology innovation companies, and often when companies sink it is not because their technology was bad, but because they did not adequately deal with the human element. Furthermore, if computer programming is a core part of innovation, …. listen to this …. you do not need maths to programme computers. There is a lot you can do without any maths at all.


You absolutely do not need to have maths to programme computers. I should know, I been programming for nearly 4 decades and I suck at maths. It is time to dispel that myth!

So while we do need better STEM, we also need better, more innovative STHEM. In fact we need to foster education that creates innovation across all of these disciplines together, we need iSTHEM. And we need to recover this non-mathematical lost generation and let them know that there is much they can do. The STEM narrative need not take away from humanities, instead the two can work together.