Spotlight On: Civil Discourse and Education

6 April 2018

This article was first published in the Queenwood weekly newsletter on 23 March 2018.

The 2018 Balmoral Lecture series was launched on Wednesday 21 March by Minister Rob Stokes who delivered a talk entitled ‘Challenging the STEM Orthodoxy’. It was a powerful and erudite presentation and it made the front page on Thursday under the headline ‘STEM has become a buzzword and a fad’. Judging by the comments section, someone who did not attend the lecture could only conclude that the Minister must have condemned all things scientific. ‘STEM subjects are not a fad’ – the comment read. ‘The education minister is anti-STEM!’ ‘Maths and science a fad? Thankfully it was a fad when I went to school.’

In fact – as you can see from the transcript – the Minister stressed that STEM matters a great deal but it should not crowd out other areas of learning. He argued that it is a mistake to promote STEM to the exclusion of other disciplines because the full power of STEM to create a better world can only be unleashed if it is harnessed to the skills and wisdom gained through the humanities. This, of course, resonates with our philosophy of providing a contemporary liberal education which is strong across the spectrum of STEM, the arts, languages and the humanities.

The Minister’s argument was, in my view, adequately conveyed in Thursday’s press coverage and yet large numbers were ready to pile on, attacking a point which was never made. Sometimes these misplaced attacks are the product of misunderstanding, a failure to appreciate the nuance or sophistication of the argument. This can be a troubling stumbling block to quality public debate (and it is true that the Minister’s lecture was very learned) but the difference between ‘STEM is no good’ and ‘STEM is not the only good’ is not particularly complex.

It is true that misleading headlines can be a pitfall for short attention spans. Today’s front page continues coverage of the debate under the headline (print edition): Minister Schooled in the STEM 'Fad' Debate. Again, this suggests resounding condemnation of the Minister’s thesis but thirty seconds of further reading will reveal that key figures (including former NSW Chief Scientist, Professor Mary O’Kane) have come out in support of the Minister, although there are also sceptical comments from others. Even if the headlines do not capture the thrust of the argument, it is refreshing that questions about the purpose and philosophy of education are, for a few days, being vigorously argued at the highest levels.

It is not enough, however, that experts alone should engage in the contest of ideas. A strong, stable liberal democracy needs wide participation by an informed citizenry. Lamenting the quality of public debate goes right back to Plato’s Republic, so we should be cautious about prophecies of doom. Nevertheless, it does seem clear that in recent years there have been significant shifts in (un)civil discourse.

The challenge of sustaining high quality public debate is certainly not assisted by increasingly ready resort to indignation and recrimination. No doubt there are many factors at play, including increasingly frequent perceptions of victimhood , conflation of ‘acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’, and the fragmentation of public discourse into echo-chambers of boundless fury and groundless conspiracy.

Whatever the precise cause, though, you will not be surprised to hear me argue that education will be key in combatting these trends – which brings us back to the Balmoral Lecture.

We offer a rigorous, contemporary liberal education – which values the full range of disciplines – because we believe it stimulates a lifelong awakening to the complexity of the world. In particular, it equips our girls to engage readily with high-level discourse and sophisticated argument. It also prepares our girls for a life which is fulfilling and purposeful because it is directed towards making a contribution to the world.
Engaging with big ideas is essential for young people, and they are hungry for it. Through opportunities such as the Balmoral Lectures we want to encourage wider public understanding of contemporary issues and to prepare our students to take their place within those debates. It was wonderful to see the process in action on Wednesday night and to watch the girls finding their voice within it.

Ms Elizabeth Stone