10/03/2014 04:21 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Our Obsession With STEM

If there is one thing all of the factions waging rhetorical warfare over educational reform seem to agree on, it is surely the need for a greater focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields of study. In a world in which advancing technology is rapidly changing virtually every aspect of the way we live and work, the focus on STEM would seem to be a no brainer. We have to do better in the so-called "hard sciences" if we are to remain competitive in the global marketplace. No sensible person can dispute that.

But to focus on STEM to the virtual exclusion of everything else is grave mistake that will have far-reaching consequences on our society, none of them positive. The primary objective of public education is and must always be the development of citizenship -- preparing young people to appreciate our heritage so that they can preserve it for future generations. But we are producing high school graduates who do not know when the American Revolution or the Civil War were fought, much less what they were about and how they echo across the years.

To be worthwhile citizens, our young people must learn how to communicate effectively with each other and the outside world. That demands rigorous attention to the rules of grammar that underpin effective communication as surely as math underpins engineering. The inability to speak and write clearly leads to fuzzy thinking and irrational decisions. But the beleaguered English instructors in our schools, already struggling to infuse clear expression into the digital age, are being shoved aside in favor of the all-important STEM mania.

Which is one of many reasons why students need to study literature -- the great works that illuminate the human condition, demonstrate effective language in action and enable scholars to experience lives far beyond their own narrow experience. Art and music are equally vital to the quality of life for they lift us from the mundane business of getting and spending into a higher plane of joyful appreciation of beauty. God knows there is more than enough ugliness in this old world; we owe it to our children to teach them where and how to find beauty, and to savor it.

Modern communication and transportation are making our world smaller by the day and forcing us to recognize and deal with cultures vastly different from our own. How can we expect our young people to handle that when they understand so little about their own culture?

In the final analysis, the ultimate purpose of STEM subjects is the same as that of the liberal arts -- to endow our young people with a capacity for critical thinking. Plutarch said the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit. Every successful citizen remembers at least one teacher -- maybe more -- who had that gift of light, who saw a spark in the student's eyes and inspired him or her to love learning. We need to find those teachers, honor them, respect them, reward them and let them work -- whether they teach math or history, science or art.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.