10/29/2014 05:46 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Higher Ed Is Getting STEAM-y

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LAS VEGAS -- With increasing frequency, I've been coming across an old industrial word that's become a new cyber-age acronym: STEAM. Since STEM has already become ubiquitous and perhaps stale, they've apparently decided to append a labored A, referring to "arts." I don't know who "they" are exactly, but I hope educators will think twice before jumping on this locomotive.

Today's instance comes from a session here at the College Board Forum, the annual meeting of college representatives, college counselors, and other educators interested in college readiness. The session in question focuses on initiatives that "are increasing student access... in the subject areas of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics."

The inclusion of arts is, presumably, a nod to the "left-brain, right-brain" complement. I'm all for liberal education -- vehemently so--and I'm all for students who cultivate diverse interests and skills. But I confess that I'm surprised to see painting and opera are now mentioned, implicitly, in the same breath as vector calculus and artificial intelligence.

For years now we've learned that students of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math, for the .001 percent of you who haven't heard of it) are going to inherit the Earth. That's understandable. STEM jobs are rampant and often well paying. Then again, in a world where one of the hottest new apps is one that arranges for your laundry to be picked up at your door, I can't help but be a little skeptical.

With ever increasing numbers of students going into STEM fields -- some probably against their will or against their better judgment -- the chances to change the world, or even find a job, are going to grow marginally slimmer. Who wants to be in, say, the bottom 1/3 of your engineering school when tens of thousands of other kids are studying, and doing better in, the exact same field?

As formal education has evolved over two-three millennia, the practicality of certain academic fields has certainly waxed and waned. But we enter complicated territory when we try to strategically favor some over others. Skills that are practical and readily observable hold no more, or less, value in the long term as do those that are subtle and wide-ranging. A student of computer science could land a job writing apps tomorrow. That app company, if it succeeds, will one day need the assistance of an attorney, who honed his or her writing and analytical skills as an English or history major.

I suspect that my fellow English majors have a hard time taking STEAM (rhymes with "meme") seriously because of its name alone. There's a good chance that it's trendy only because it sounds better than STEHM. Or STEBM. Or STESSM. It's also borderline absurd to stretch what was a useful bit of shorthand into something so broad as to be meaningless. A student who's told to study STEAM is destined for confusion if he or she doesn't already have a specific goal in mind. In that sense, the STEAM acronym is nearly meaningless except as a means of marginalizing the disciplines that are left out. The bigger the club gets, the worse it feels to be excluded.

I love the arts. Sure, they've never cured cancer or delivered my groceries. But they have never wreaked havoc with the climate or threatened to vaporize a city either. I'm glad that the nation's arbiters of education have finally discovered. But I also love every other discipline.

So why not dispense with pretense and commit ourselves to what we should be doing for students: Giving them the chance to evaluate the world on their own terms and showing them the full breadth of majors, programs, and paths of discovery that American universities offer in such breathtaking abundance and let them dream about their own interests, aspirations, and skills? Why promote, say, dance because it's an "art" at the expense of history because it's a mere humanities discipline? Why declare that the world "needs" electrical engineers but not economists?

And anyway, since arts are the ones who are late to the party, shouldn't it really be "STEMA?" If it was, it might not inspire quite so many conference sessions. What should be inspiring is the chance for a students to find their passions and talents and -- regardless of discipline -- to explore them to the fullest.