STEM is one of the most ubiquitous educational buzzwords of our time. And it threatens to degrade the human experience into a life of button-mashing technophilia. 

STEM (science, technology engineering and math) prepares students for the workforce, proponents say. More forthright STEM disciples talk about the needs of corporate America. Gov. Terry Branstad, to his credit, is in the second camp.

Indeed, Branstad's "Future Ready Iowa" proposal is all about job creation. The administration predicts 612,000 new workers will be needed thanks to growth and attrition by 2025. Increasingly, those jobs will require of workers a never-before-seen level of technical proficiency, the argument goes. And, as such, high schools and colleges must focus on applied sciences and mathematics.

Branstad isn't alone. From Congress to governors of all political stripes, the STEM bug is running rampant through American primary schools. CEOs decry the unpreparedness of the modern workforce. The U.S. Department of Education showers willing, cash-strapped states with grants for STEM education. Branstad's plan was drafted only after a $170,000 grant from the National Governors Association.

More math and science. Sounds good, right? It's particularly useful in a country where large populations might be described as, ahem, "science challenged."

Money and time are finite commodities. Something must suffer as a result of the STEM craze. Enter the arts. 

The number of music programs, particularly in urban districts, has plunged since 1999, says a report by the Association of American Educators. Another study in California concluded that student participation in music dropped 47 percent in just five years. 

Purveyors of the arts have resorted to justifying their own existence by noting how it affects STEM. "Music education improves math scores," they say. 

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It's a saddening, probably necessary approach to win over those who assume the arts, in and of themselves, are valueless.

STEMs almost universal acceptance is peculiar in an era when climate scientists are accused of cultivating a massive hoax. At first blush, it's a weird obsession in a country where evolution, the very crux of all modern biology, stokes controversy. STEM get a pass because it's all about completing a task. STEM is about jobs, not theory or critical thought.

The "great" societies are defined by a few things. Massive sewers, roads and public works projects that scar the earth for eons, offering researchers an idea of a population's size and engineering abilities. Religious monuments and burial rituals weave a tale about belief systems. The arts blend the concrete and abstract together. Songs tell stories and honor gods. Statues, paintings and glyphs show aesthetic preferences. The earliest laws were written in caricatures depicting daily life. 

Humans do a handful of wholly unique things. Artistic self-expression predates the others, according to the archaeological record.

From theory to practice, an understanding of the arts offers a uniquely human view of the universe's countless wonders. And yet, in a nation obsessed with STEM, fewer students are offered the chance to explore it.

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Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at jalexander@qctimes.com

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