America Competes: STEM, STEAM, Design Thinking, and corporate pedagogy as epistemic nationalism

Eleanor Dare

Few constructs at first sight, seem as innocuous as STEM and its nebulous afterthought, STEAM. Yet in recent weeks the UK government has confirmed that Arts and Humanities subjects in Higher Education will lose 50% of their funding; this loss is presented as part of an intensified commitment to STEM subjects, establishing a binary of epistemic value, only nominally redressed by the concept of STEAM. Earlier in 2021 the UK Office for Students announced:

we believe it right that we should increase the budget for high-cost subject funding beyond the £744 million. We therefore propose to increase the total high-cost subject funding to £756 million, but within this, to enhance further the rate of funding for STEM and healthcare disciplines and reduce the rate of funding for other subjects 

Some may take at face value the idea that in times of economic pressure, the Covid-19 pandemic and escalating climate crises, subjects such as medicine and scientific ‘innovation’ should be prioritised. Few educators dare to (or even think to) publicly criticize STEM and STEAM, which are almost invariably presented as unquestionably benign contributions to developing a better world. A benevolent reading frames STEM and STEAM as focused on improved educational outcomes, widening participation, diversifying workforces, ‘disrupting’ and positively ‘transforming’ all aspects of our lives (see, Yet the imminent cuts to UK HE Arts and Humanities education, combined at the same time with cuts to key areas of scientific research, reveal a far less munificent agenda, as stated by Universities UK:

A £1 billion reduction in domestic research funding is roughly equivalent to the total research and innovation budgets of the Medical Research Council and Science and Technology Facilities Council combined.

 It would also lead to a further reduction of up to £1.6 billion in private R&D investment which would have been stimulated through public investment. 

The relationship of STEM and STEAM to nationalistic legislation passed within the United States over the last two decades is explicit. It is more concerned with top down corporate and military supremacy (positioned against China) than support for academic researchers. Foremost of the legislation implicated with STEM is the America Competes act of 2007 and 2010 (whose advisory board included figures from corporate America such as Arthur Levinson, then chair of Apple). The Act explicitly connects STEM in identifying ‘ways to use cyber-enabled learning to create an innovative STEM workforce and to help retrain and retain our existing STEM workforce to address national challenges, including national security and competitiveness’

Despite the customary depiction of STEM as a beneficial commitment to the future of children, wider education and the world, STEM arguably serves a more sinister purpose, in which as Mackereth writes: ‘nationalism is appropriated by technological agendas’, with China’s manufacturing capability, ‘plans, resources, and progress’ constructed as of ‘concern to all Americans’.  Mackereth analyses the NSCAI (National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence) report which ‘epitomises AI nationalism’, or ‘a new kind of geopolitics’ that connects geopolitical supremacy to AI development’.These reports are concerned with the maintenance of American supremacy and power:

The primary manifestation of AI nationalism is the intensifying rhetoric of the AI ‘arms race,’ which pitches AI development as a zero-sum game where the victor will not only control the most advanced AI technology, but also enjoy economic, political, and military dominance over all other nations 

Wider STEM serves the same purpose which Mackereth identifies in relation to AI. STEM has been explicitly invoked by US and UK governments for those ends (see STEAM is aligned to the agenda of STEM, but in a more subservient, secondary role, one which is illustrative of STEM, suggesting the Arts have no function other than to service STEM, as handmaiden to a nationalist, technologically determined military industrial agenda. UK and indeed, now global, undergraduate design education is often dominated by Design Thinking, a neoliberal ideology, constructed above all, to consolidate the matrix of corporate domination, particularly positioned, like STEM and STEAM against China.  Ansari states, Design thinking becomes:

a means of extending the ‘colonial matrix of power’, what decolonial thinkers like Mignolo and Anibal Quijano have identified as the global Western hegemony over systems of economy, sovereign authority, subjectivity and knowledge under the rubric of growth and development — it becomes a way of thinking that suppresses and marginalizes local knowledge, thought and expertise 

Design Thinking also promotes a supremacy over China, as Irani reminds us::

IDEO’s shrinking machine shop and turn to “design thinking” was a response to Chinese workers trained for entrepreneurial adventures and to design products. In China, hierarchies of labor and subjectivities of work were also undergoing transformation as China reoriented toward global capital 

Buzon connects Design Thinking to a ‘different flavor of colonialism’ in which its ‘missionaries seek to eradicate opposing mythologies to establish itself as supreme and all-encompassing through missions (bootcamps) and plenary indulgences (certification)’.

In light of my own research into STEM and STEAM and Design Thinking, in recent months I have been re-evaluating the trajectory of my own education and teaching within the UK, which for many decades seemed the result of individual choice. It now strikes me that my post-graduate education and teaching is above all a by-product of an escalating cold war in which America and the UK have positioned themselves, foremost, as against China. Such a cold war is about the threat to America’s industrial, military, and economic dominance, any claim that it relates to human rights is to profoundly misread the American and UK state’s intentions. A technological ‘cold war’ is aligned strongly with American corporate power, with the imaginaries of, for example, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, who have all supported the American state in ICE, military surveillance, and other forms of military technological development; research published by the technology accountability nonprofit Tech Inquiry, revealed:

the Department of Defense and federal law enforcement agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have secured thousands of deals with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Dell, IBM, Hewlett Packard and even Facebook that have not been previously reported. 

In the pandemic, corporate power has further extended its reach into Higher Education. Over the last few years, we have witnessed the trend of replacing academics and educators, who once held Governorships and sat on college Councils, with CEOs and other Business Leaders. Such governance, many of us fear, is designed to consolidate corporate public pedagogy, the purpose of which is to serve the individual in a competitive environment where material gain is to the fore. In the culture of corporate public pedagogy matters of social and planetary justice, gender, ethnicity, and social class issues are all at risk of being undervalued and normalised for the sake of economic gain.Researching the governorships of most UK universities soon reveals the extent to which corporate interests, from property investment to banking and Big Tech are entangled with HE governance. For example, the RCA’s chancellor, Jony Ive, was appointed while Chief Design Officer of Apple. It is in the interests of corporations to promote their own ideological imperatives within HE, regardless of their incompatibility with the stated aims of most colleges in relation to equality, diversity, sustainability, and the climate crisis.

STEM and STEAM cannot be meaningfully taught without deconstructing their inherently colonial fallacies and power structures, as well as their relationship to nationalism, yet constructs of digital literacy are not focused on the power structures underpinning technology. At present this is largely missing from the curriculum and is in many ways undermined by the dominant neoliberal discourse of embedded institutes. This is a pattern in HE, far from challenging the power structures and colonial impact of technologies, HE computing/AI/technology institutes and research centres predominantly reinforce existing inequalities, often using constructs of ethics and ‘technology for good’ as a cover for largely unchallenging, neoliberal curricula and relationships to corporations implicated in cold war militarism. Underrepresentation, inequality, and the colonial power relations we have experienced for decades have not been ‘transformed’ by STEM and STEAM. Achievements by scientists who created vaccines have been threatened by funding cuts; BREXIT has undermined the NHS’s ability to maintain a work force, while the UK demographic (without immigration) cannot meet the need of current and future healthcare, unless perhaps the UK government thinks it can force or ‘nudge’ all British 18-year-olds to study medicine whether they want to or not? That would at least explicitly expose the reality that neoliberal ‘choice’ and ‘personal learning’ are no more than a cynical sleight of hand. STEM and STEAM are not benign pedagogies, they are weaponized ideologies in a technological cold war which reinforces racism and imperialism.

Photo by Mick De Paola on Unsplash

Eleanor Dare is an academic and critical technologist specialising in digital epistemology, pedagogy and collaborative writing/spatiality. Eleanor has an MSc and PhD from Goldsmith’s Department of Computing. Eleanor was formerly Head of Programme and Reader in Digital Media at the Royal College of Art.  Eleanor is now a visiting lecturer and digital specialist working with Central Saint Martins, Cambridge University, UCL and the RCA. Eleanor has many published papers, exhibitions and funded research projects which can be found here.

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