Stemming The Tide

While some snow leopards live in zoos, like this one in Philadelphia, ‘Planet Earth' was the first to capture footage of snow leopards hunting in the wild

While some snow leopards live in zoos, like this one in Philadelphia, ‘Planet Earth’ was the first to capture footage of snow leopards hunting in the wild

Sometimes I feel a compulsive need to do something … educational.

The seed has been planted in my head that I will waste my life if all I do is watch pleasant but decidedly un-intellectual fare like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or play video games with zero basis in reality (and since I like fantasy, that means pretty much all of them outside of Assassin’s Creed).

So I used to watch Drunk History before I settled into my usual TV watching routine, because those were accurate accounts of history, if punctuated with vomiting and tipsy asides and sound effects.

Now that I’ve finished that, I’m currently watching Planet Earth as my obligatory “smart” show. The incredible shots of snow leopards hunting in the mountains (never before caught on film, according to David Attenborough’s soothing voice) or literal millions of Canadian geese taking flight are awe-inspiring, humbling and also involuntarily put me to sleep.

I suppose I should just count the historical dramas I already like — like The Crown or The Tudors — as “educational,” but since I know they are not exactly 100 percent historically accurate, it’s like my brain won’t let it count. (Also yes, I have a great passion for British royalty, only rivaled by my interest in U.S. presidents and the Kennedy family. I did try, of course, to watch The Kennedys and, uh, let’s just say that you should not bother.)

What’s with this weird mental block? It baffled me as I drifted in and out of the “Caves” episode of Planet Earth (watching giant cockroaches eat a bat alive: horrifying, but somehow sleep inducing). What’s with this insistence that some TV has inherently less quality than others?

Blame it on society’s veneration of STEM (science, math, engineering and technology) at the expense of nearly all else. Oh, I know there’s a push for STEAM (adding art to the mix), but let’s face it: The liberal arts and humanities are no longer the focus of our K-12 educational system.

The evidence seems clear to me. There no shortage of scholarships, after-school programs or extracurriculars devoted to robotics, computers and problem solving. The latest educators to be recognized by National Milken Educators of Hawaii all were praised for their emphasis on “hands-on learning,” “science experiments” and “STEM themes.”

How many kids these days know how to really, critically read a novel? Or how to watch TV and pick out questions of morality or empathy? Or how to apply the lessons of history to modern events? These are crucial skills in negotiating life and interacting with others. And we’ve largely deprioritized them — both in the classroom and our attitudes. What will the consequences be after decades of STEM-first policy on the American people?

I don’t know. It certainly can’t be good. And I don’t think David Attenborough will be able to tell me, either.