It might be said that not enough graduates of Protestant Christian schools in North America will go on to make their vocation in a STEM-related field. The results of the Cardus Education Survey suggest that, compared to their counterparts in Catholic and non-religious private schools, students in Protestant schools are much more likely to choose a human-service-related career—such as social work or education—over science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. CES data shows that when graduates of these schools do take advanced credit courses in STEM subjects, there is no statistically significant difference in their performance compared to the graduates from other school sectors, nor are males more likely to enroll in those STEM courses than are females. The issue, therefore, is not that Protestant Christian schools are necessarily bad at teaching STEM subjects per se. The issue is one of imagination. What do Protestant Christian schools imagine that STEM education is for?
C.S. Lewis, himself a notoriously poor mathematician, challenged the false dualism of an education which separates reason from imagination:
"For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition." - Mere Christianity
In the Washington Post last week, Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College in Memphis, imagines a liberal-arts grounding for STEM education. She argues that innovation, good communication, and the building of strong collaborative relationships in teaching and learning support the development of well-rounded STEM graduates. Jackson-Hayes describes her own experience of becoming a scientist in the apprenticeship model where she learned alongside colleagues and mentors who were further along in their journey. This journey was grounded in a wider liberal-arts education which she says "unlocked true learning." Jackson-Hayes says that employers scoop her students up "because of their ability to apply cross-disciplinary thinking to an incredibly complex world." I want graduates of Christian schools to be like that; to be part of a bigger conversation about the STEM subjects and what they are for. I want them to imagine themselves as having a perspective worth contributing to the big debates of the future.
If we don't exercise a muscle, it loses strength. C.S. Lewis suggests that we need to exercise both imagination and reason or we will lose the philosophical, moral, and creative context in which the pursuit of reason best takes place. The Evangelical Protestant community in North America has traditionally invested in the liberal arts, but it seems as though global trends in higher education towards degrees perceived to lead directly into a career such as accounting or business are biting. Enrolment in Christian liberal arts colleges and universities is falling. Clearly the reasons for this are many, but might a factor be that the community is reflecting the same limited imagination as education policy makers?
The Cardus data describes contemporary themes, from which we can only hypothesize as to the reasons why fewer graduates from Protestant Christian schools engage in STEM careers. But a fairly reasoned guess would be that it has to do with the kind of limited theological imagination which separates out science from the metaphysical and spiritual. This is a limited view of knowledge that prioritizes either reason or imagination, but does not relate to them both.
I want to suggest that a limited imagination produces fear. We perform much more poorly, we learn badly, and we grow less when we are afraid. Dr. Ruth Bancewicz of the Faraday Institute argues that: "Science is a particular way of looking at the world that anyone can learn, whatever their overarching worldview might be." She writes that we "need to affirm science as a worthwhile activity for Christians, and not shy away from it because of the debates."
The CES data shows us that Protestant Christian schools are fertile ground for the kinds of strong relationships which might facilitate good teaching, learning, and civic engagement—and promote the liberal arts. Jackson-Hayes says that this is exactly what good STEM graduates need. Let's dare to imagine what robust, critical STEM education in Christian schools might look like, so that the world of science no longer looks at them, scratches its head, and utters the words of C.S. Lewis's fictional Digory Kirke: "Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!" - The Last Battle