Replacing Social Studies With STEM Is a Terrible Idea

Humanities in public schools help students understand, and engage with, the world.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

For years, the trend in K-12 education policy circles has been to push public schools to offer more courses teaching students about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), sometimes at the expense of humanities courses. This is particularly true for the mix of history, civics, and the social sciences that we call social studies

Many states require high school students to take computer science while cutting or deemphasizing social studies requirements. And presidential administrations, regardless of which party occupies the White House, have funded major initiatives to expand STEM classes in public high schools.

My first teaching job was at a STEM magnet school when there was a focus nationwide for districts to bring these courses to historically disadvantaged and marginalized communities in the early to mid-2010s. Multiple sources have repeatedly found that Native American, Black, Latinx, and economically disadvantaged students are the least likely to be enrolled in schools that offer computer science courses, as are students in rural schools.

All students must have access to the careers they desire for themselves, and careers where they can have an impact in meeting the challenges of our world. STEM careers certainly fit that bill. But so do careers in the social sciences. 

As a history teacher, I am concerned that social studies, as well as the arts, are often disregarded or pushed aside in the name of promoting STEM.

In recent years, as we continue to see nations and people wrestle with conflict around the world (as well as political conservatives fighting fiercely to keep certain books out of schools, keep certain curricula out of classrooms, and water down history to prevent white guilt), people are beginning to realize that knowing history is important, and understanding human behavior and motivations is critical to wrestling with issues that affect us all.

READ: Teaching Civics in an Age of Book Bans

In our rush to fill jobs and achieve a diversity of skills and competencies, we have deemphasized social studies, directly or indirectly. Learning history, geography, sociology, and other subjects that make up the social studies matters just as much as it’s ever mattered, if not more so.

This isn’t to say that STEM isn’t as important as social studies. It’s to say that social studies are as important as STEM, and the study of history, location, and people enables us to prepare students to meet the various challenges of our world.

It’s not a good sign for the future that students—as well as adults—are unable to name their local, state, and congressional representatives. Or that many voters feel helpless in holding their representatives accountable or powerless unless they run for political office.

Likewise, it’s not a good sign for our democracy that voting rights are being attacked, or that people aren’t as knowledgeable as they should be about the history of voting rights and why they matter. Teaching social studies prepares students to not only vote but to join the fight for voting rights for all. Lessons to help empower citizens come from social studies classes in school.

Social studies can contextualize the insurrection of January 6, 2021. The subject helps explain geography and can help future voters decide whether or not they support the political, military, and financial issues in international conflicts such as the war in Ukraine and genocide in Gaza.

Social studies help us understand location and culture—where things and people are, and why they are the way they are. The discipline provides historical context for students to navigate that history, build bridges, and reach solutions. We study and learn from social movements and crimes against society—all so that we can make our world a better place.

READ: We Can’t Exclude Black or Asian American History in Classrooms

Knowledge of culture, geography, and history is just as important as knowledge of engineering, computer programming, coding, and chemical compounding in a lab. When we put people over systems and profits, we can leverage STEM to improve the human condition and reverse the very oppressive forces and circumstances we learn from history.

History is not our enemy. Rather, it is our portal into the world we wish to have for ourselves and future generations. We must be bold enough to admit that when we pushed STEM education it was wrong to neglect truth.

Educators must learn from our current political environment. To best navigate culture wars, historical wars, and political agendas, the educational world must emphasize social studies. STEM and the humanities must work together to make a better world.

This article was originally published in The Progressive and reprinted here with permission.

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Rann Miller

Rann Miller

Rann Miller is an educator and freelance writer based in New Jersey. His Urban Education Mixtape blog supports urban educators and parents of children attending urban schools. He is the author of the recently released book, Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids (Bloom Books for Young Readers, March 2023). Follow Rann on Twitter @RealRannMiller

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