Maintaining a State of Innovation

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has become a common buzzword in the field of education. The acronym was forged a few years ago by political and business leaders who fear the United States is losing its competitive edge and falling behind in the global economy. STEM advocates contend that, in order for America to remain competitive, our schools must emulate the educational curriculum of China and other countries, or doom our nation to a long, hard fall from its position of economic supremacy.

A successful campaign waged on behalf of STEM has resulted in the re-direction of tremendous resources and funding away from the humanities. Federal, state, and local governments along with private foundations are investing heavily in classes designed to mold budding scientists and engineers. Meanwhile music, English, history, and art teachers are scrambling to find ways to cover shrinking budgets and class sizes.

While no one disputes that math, science, and technology are crucial to the future, I would argue that an understanding of history and the humanities is equally important.

Throughout the pages of this issue of Georgia History Today, you will read stories about innovators, men and women who saw and met a need or developed a new approach to an old problem. These innovators came from diverse fields but shared in common a commitment to making the world a better place, the courage to challenge conventional thinking, and the ability to look at the familiar in a new way.

As an academic discipline, history is particularly suited to sparking this kind of innovation. Not only does it teach us tolerance for the frailties of humankind and develops in us a shared national identity, it also prompts us to ask the crucial question “why?” and to see other ways of solving problems.

Genuine innovation—the kind that sets us on a new course—requires an understanding of how the world we live in was created. We cannot really conceive of what is possible if we do\ not know where we have been or how we got to this point. History gives us this broad knowledge and perspective. It can also inspire us to emulate the innovators of the past, to see in their lives and accomplishments that taking a risk and challenging convention can lead to success in the long run.

Maintaining our competitive edge requires the ability to solve problems, to communicate clearly and persuasively, and to think independently and critically about the world around us and the people who aspire to govern us. The study of history teaches these skills.

Meeting the challenges of the future—whether social or economic—also requires an appreciation for our democratic ideals, our unique political and economic systems, and a knowledge of what truly makes America great, in all its complexity and diversity. Once again, history points the way.

Mastery of STEM is important. But by itself STEM is insufficient. Recent studies have revealed that while international students may score better in math and science than their American counterparts, they are unprepared for university and fall behind, demonstrating that it takes more than just calculus and physics to spark curiosity and creativity.

Developing new ideas and technology requires a well-rounded education, one that teaches us not what to think, but how to think. The innovators of tomorrow—those creative minds that will keep America competitive in the global economy—need science and math. They also need the inspiration, perspective, and critical eye that only history and the humanities can bring.

It’s at the intersection of these two disciplines––STEM and the humanities––where true innovation can be found.

Indeed, many of the greatest innovators were educated in the humanities. In college, Steve Jobs studied eastern religions and Ted Turner was a classics major who read Thucydides. The two books that most influenced the young Thomas Edison were School of Natural Philosophy and Advancement of Science and Art.

Chances are the next Steve Jobs is being inspired by an art or history teacher right now.

W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.
W. Todd Groce, Ph.D., is President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society.