STEM Justice and Dr. King

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“The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.” 

-Martin Luther King, Jr., The Purpose of Education

There are many STEM educators who believe STEM education is primarily about preparing tomorrow’s workforce for global competition.  If Dr. King was with us I believe he would say in no uncertain terms, “They are wrong!”  In fact, those that seek to couch STEM education as ancillary to the momentum of today’s corporate agenda commit both a strategic and moral err.  Left uncorrected, the ‘tomorrow’s workforce’ ethos renders the STEM education movement largely elitist and in many ways counterproductive to existing conditions in impoverished communities. In order to be a worthwhile pursuit, leading STEM educators must redirect the current discourse of STEM education to focus on what I call ‘STEM Justice.’

STEM Justice is the essential aim to leverage STEM as a means, not an end, to pursue the values of equity and justice championed by leaders such as Dr. King, Horace Mann and Mary McLeod Bethune. Though it sounds a lot like merely another education reform movement, it actually is a different and much higher bar than what has been set by many STEM education leaders.

Rather than a curricular conversation that focuses on preparation of tomorrow’s workforce, at its core, STEM Justice recognizes the real need for scientists, technologists, mathematicians, and engineers to work as social and environmental advocates and problem solvers to improve our communities today. When pursued collaboratively and in good faith, STEM Justice provides both political coverage and capital that enables students, communities, and industry to engage in a more productive and equitable dynamic, and inspires them to solve our shared problems, beginning with our most impoverished communities.  At the end, STEM Justice is measurable in terms of progress made and remunerations paid out in impoverished communities, and is quickly followed by decreases in persistent negative trends of incarceration, education, and health.

Sound too complex to be achievable? To ideal to be realistically executed? Consider these two other quotes from Dr. King:

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.” 
Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
Nobel Price Acceptance Speech

Admittedly, transitioning the current ‘workforce’ discussion to one of ‘justice’ in STEM is no easy task. It require courageous leadership, bold truths, learning adaptively, and compassionately reach out to people that may have been historically misaligned or sidelined. Our goal must be to show them by example that better ways are indeed possible and inspire belief in the seemingly unbelievable.  This is the task at hand!  This is the work we do at TAF. Otherwise we merely pay lip service to existing power structures at the expense of the impoverished, making highly branded mockery of their misery, while meanwhile creating an inescapably harsh reality much more menacing to the world and spirit than even those of yesteryear.

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