Some More Thoughts, and a Response, on STEM Education

My last post on STEM education in Florida has gotten an extensive response from Charles Richardson.  This is a topic very much in vogue and deserves further treatment, although some of what I have to say in response to him–and others who don’t find my strong position on the subject to their taste–I’ve covered in posts past.

As the musicians would say, let’s take it from the top:

Why are Americans especially politicians pushing STEM education contra the humanities right now?

While those of us who are involved in STEM education and activity are gratified that the issue is getting the attention it has, every silver lining has a cloud.  In this case, as Richardson implies, our elites are in something of a desperation mode.  They realise that the main competitors in the world–especially China and India–are strong in this regard, and they also realise (took long enough) that no modern society will move forward without technological skills among the populace.  The growth of secularism among our elites also makes them receptive to the arguments of the New Atheists that everything is scientific, although in their ignorance and humanistic religiosity they turn science into religion, especially as it regards evolution.

STEM training seems to provide an answer. And it does for some people–the “right brained” and workers without much access to good training in the humanities for class reasons. But it’s not a magic bullet. If you’re part of that high percentage of the population that’s “left brained,” then STEM is not for you.

I think that’s a sweeping generalisation.  If we look outside of our Anglophone bubble, we see cultures where technically trained people constitute a higher part of post-secondary credentials and are held in higher esteem in society.  The Roman Catholic Church just selected a Pope with a first degree in chemistry; the Chinese elevate technically trained people routinely, etc.  Are these societies and groups less cultured than ours?  Hardly.

Compounding the traditions of the English-speaking world is the fundamentally Luddite nature of our elites.  They are basically flower children or their intellectual descendants; their life view is rooted in a view that rejected science and technology to start with.  That’s why their whole panic re STEM is such a laugh; had they put scientists and engineers at the table to start with, many of the environmental problems they lamented (among others) could have been solved much more easily.  Instead the system was rigged against human activity via the regulatory system and now everyone wonders why our economy won’t get going again.  (that’s not the only reason why we’re in a stall, but that’s a big one).

I’m not saying that no one should concentrate in the humanities, and certainly there will be those that will.  But as I see it the system is too skewed in that direction and needs some balance; re-emphasising STEM will do that if done properly.

But let’s say you do go STEM. Ok, great, you get a rigorous education, you participate in the great project of science, and you graduate with skills in demand. But let’s not forget that your salary doesn’t grow much over your career unless you do above average patent work or you develop the sort leadership and people skills to make the jump into management. Yes, your skills are more readily transferable across borders, so you can tap into foreign labor markets. But they can also tap into you.

Outsourcing is a topic that is constantly in front of those of us who ply STEM.  How much impact that really has depends upon the field.  And, yes, anyone needs to develop their people skills.  But that goes back to the issue of pre-college education and experience.  The biggest threat to the development of people skills is the breakdown of our families, followed by the contraction of civic life in the U.S., traditionally one of the country’s strong suits.  Trying to make up for these at the university level is a very tall order, to say the least.

I also think that STEM people get a bum rap for being universal nerds.  I don’t find that to be the case, especially with the growth of the number of women in the field, to say nothing of the cultural diversity that has taken place with the abandonment of STEM by Caucasians.

Let’s say you’re lucky enough to go to a fancy private college where most students have money and brains. Then you can pursue the humanities or social sciences in a way impossible at the secondary school level and move into serious leadership in media, government, law, consulting, or finance.

That speaks to the recent flap over the “Princeton marriages” business.  The core question is this: is the key benefit of an Ivy League education–irrespective of major–the education you get or the people you connect with on the way up?  And, yes, this inequality is sad, I’ve lamented it for years.

Let’s move from the individual level to a broader, more societal one. The financial crisis and the deeper trends it exposed were caused to a high degree by things like the poor design of the euro, the foreign demand for American debt caused by investment failures in exporters in Asia, regulatory capture in America. All of these problems are non-STEM problems, so for society to treat them by turning away from non-STEM education strikes me as self-defeating. If you want to strengthen the American middle class ceding the humanities and their attendant cultural power back to elites is not the way to go long-term.

As I discussed earlier, “regulatory capture” could have been ameliorated in many instances with basic science.  Our basic problem, beyond the family and civic life issues discussed earlier, is that Americans, steeped in the post-modern ability to hold contradictory opinions at the same time, no longer really know how to think.  STEM education, done correctly (and not larded with the politically correct rubbish we’ve come to expect) will help to fix that.  Our elites for their part are shooting for a system where only the holding of the right credentials opens the doors to power, and you can have that in a technical system (France) or a non-technical one (UK, US).

Look at the Soviets. They had great STEM training but little real humanism despite a rich cultural legacy. It’s no coincidence that they were also anti-democratic and had no middle class.

Readers of this blog know that the Soviet Union is a favourite topic on this blog.  They did have a great deal of STEM training, and I continue to be the beneficiary of that.  They had no middle class because their Marxist-Leninist economic system couldn’t generate the wealth to sustain one as we know it.

And anti-democratic?  Do you really think we have a functioning system of representative government now?

8 thoughts on “Some More Thoughts, and a Response, on STEM Education”

  1. Everybody wants wealth, but few understand the soil from which it springs. The ancient Greeks, the early modern Dutch, and America–first they had a flowering of broad inquiry, debate, and human rights and then an organic but often messy rise in democracy and real wealth. No sustainable economic revolution without a cultural-political one first. Such is the price. The Soviets, the Chinese, and Americans in Iraq have or will learn this the hard way.

    So, no the Chinese actually aren’t as civilized as we are. Their authentic cultural traditions are rich and fascinating, but let’s dispense with the relativistic, multicultural political correctness. The Politburo is terrified of leaks; internal security spending, i.e. riot suppression, outweighs all military expenses; and new wealth goes not towards domestic consumption but to Party bosses and interest free American t-bills that prop up exports for state owned enterprises that keep peasants employed and not rioting. Remember Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights lawyer who had the courage to file a class action lawsuit against the Chinese government for forced abortions? He studies law in New York now after he got tired of beatings and house arrest. You want an image of an unbalanced intellectual culture? Try TEN THOUSAND CHINESE WORKERS rioting at an Apple factory in Shanxi last September, one of over 90,000 “mass incidents” last year. We may have serious problems in the US, but you look at any global index of freedom and human rights and in every measure–rule of law, elite corruption, government checks, free press, etc–American political culture drastically surpasses Chinese. The Catholic Church is a church not a country, but as a country, I wouldn’t exactly call the Vatican a model of open political inquiry, credible economic thought (corporatism!), or good governance. None of this is to say that there aren’t some great technically trained leaders. But their cultures need sophisticated philosophical, political, aesthetic, economic, scientific, technological, and journalistic discourses to prosper.

    Marxist-Lenism failed because modern economies are too complex to plan and coordinate from the top down. Sadly, it spawns in authoritarian climes with little appreciation of human diversity or agency. The Florida governor seems not to have learned this lesson. If he had proposed introductory level curriculum changes to attract rather than weed out prospective STEM majors or increased funding for basic research or done any number of things to strengthen the range or depth of STEM literary and training, then I would have supported him. But by unnecessarily pitting the sciences against the social sciences and humanities, he strikes me as hurting education and constraining the freedom and internal energies of problem solving individuals. Maybe, he could use a little history:

    1. One of the most valuable lessons I learned as an engineering undergraduate was that, if you want to discover why something didn’t come out as you predicted, you start by looking at the assumptions you made in the solution to the problem. That’s something that Americans, product of a system that has been successful for so long, don’t do: they leave the basic assumptions unexamined, even of their own success. That’s a large explanation of why we’re in trouble at this stage.

      One of those assumptions is that our educational system,and especially our higher education system, is the fount of wisdom and the ultimate transmitter of values. That’s expecting something that the system wasn’t designed to do. One of the keys to success this country has had is our broad civic life, which includes our churches, civic organisations, and the like. These are being crowded out by our expanding government and those who benefit from the creeping centralisation of our system (the deficiencies of which you point out vis a vis the USSR). I said it before and I’ll say it again: you can’t expect the kind of socialisation and culturation you’re looking for as an American if you wait until college to inculcate it. If you’re successful in doing that beforehand–and, of course, if your primary and secondary education does what it’s supposed to do–you won’t have a lot of the downside you lament with STEM education. After all, just because you have a STEM education doesn’t mean you can’t be a mover and shaker in this society, as my grandfather illustriously proved (

      My opinions of the Chinese are not formed by “relativistic, multicultural political correctness” as you suppose but in part by experience ( It was evident at the time that the Chinese, coming off of the Cultural Revolution, had a great deal of upside potential, something that has certainly come to pass. As far as their labour troubles are concerned, that’s part and parcel with a growing economy. My family business was on the protest march route of one of the trade unions involved in the Haymarket Riot in Chicago ( Trade unions didn’t become the liability to the system they are now until after World War II.

      But China brings us to another one of those American assumptions that needs to be challenged: that the only way for a nation to succeed is to do so the way we have done. The Chinese are the products of the longest-running continuous civilisation on the planet, and that counts for something. That in turn brings us to the debacle of Iraq. The key error of the Bush Administration was to suppose that the Middle East could have democracy as readily as we did without the process behind it we have had (something else you refer to). I lamented this more than once at the time. So we got the Obama Administration, supposedly made up of suave and sophisticated people, who turned around and made the same mistake with the Arab Spring and who is now itching to do the same in Syria. In all cases the results have been tragic.

      The Soviets’ Marxist-Leninist system (and, yes, I’ve had some first-hand experience with that, too) failed because a system where the capitalist can’t appropriate at least some surplus value ends up being a system where none is generated, which leads to universal poverty. It’s worth noting that, until the early 1960’s, the Soviet standard of living was about on par with Western Europe, after which time it went into an extended stall, which collapsed when Ronald Reagan (and Margaret Thatcher) called their bluff in the 1980’s.

      As far as Rick Scott pitting STEM educators against the rest of academia, that’s just the zero-sum game that’s prevalent in higher education these days, especially the state-supported (?) part. With state support in general in retreat, the more expensive per pupil majors get blamed the most for the shortfall, and that means the STEM curricula. The STEM curricula also suffer from “outcome” based initiatives such as the “complete college” movement (an extension of the same kinds of thing we see at the secondary level) because it frequently takes students longer to complete the curriculum due to difficulty, work pressures, etc. Under these conditions, as I see it, Scott is simply levelling the playing field. But the reaction he’s getting is, for those of us in the halls of kudzu, unsurprising.

      As someone who is a product of long term success in this country, much of it by STEM-educated people, I find many of the explanations of our success, couched in the Byzantine process which is our obsession these days, to be beyond the realm of reality. And a country which has lost the understanding of its own success doesn’t have any business challenging the ways of others.

      1. Ok, sorry to have been a little snippy in the wee hours the other night. I don’t think you’re a card carrying relativist, and I don’t wish to imply in any way that scientists and engineers can’t, don’t, or shouldn’t reach the highest levels of status or material success. And I agree that elementary and high schools should do the bulk of teaching the basic facts, values and literacies to train good American citizens. And I agree that the bulk of emotional maturation and social development occurs best outside the classroom. But I am a little worried when you talk about “socialization and culturation” as if those are the assumed roles or goals of university humanities and social sciences or the ease with which student may obtain “their culture and values elsewhere” that we mean different things by “university humanities and social sciences.” Specifically, I wonder if you agree with me on the ways in which university liberal arts go beyond a mere intensification of their high school qualities to open up new dimensions.

        University humanities and social sciences focus more on fostering the evaluative capacities that underpin healthy, creative societies. In high school history, you learn about the Constitution–the key facts and maybe something of its strengths; in university history, you might focus more on arguments about the debates between the (classically educated) Founding Fathers in the Federalist Papers and the ensuing compromises at the Constitutional Convention. Make no mistake, these arguments will be controversial and messy, but they will push students to be as rational as possible, which in this case means “bottoming out” at largely non-quantitative primary documents. Taught properly, this work is hard. Students must be able to synthesize hundreds of pages every week; interpret unreliable and ambiguous sources; formulate new insights; conduct scholarly research; judge arguments based on sources, methods, and reasoning; place problems in historical, cultural, and philosophical perspective; understand the role of technology in context, write clearly and effectively about all of the above, and do a decent fraction of the above independently. The difference is the difference between learning historical facts and the “right values” and learning to think history. It’s the difference between reception and participation, and it happens earlier outside of STEM. Students move from being vessels to people, from eating to fishing. Done widely and well, such education protects high schools from Soviet historiography’s idealogical corruptions . As history majors don’t plague unemployment lines but instead command $71k mid-career median salaries, these “highly transferable” skills command a substantial market premium over a high school diploma.

        But let’s think like economists for a second and talk about the market. If Mr. Market does place a premium on STEM degrees especially at the starting level, that means simply that the relative labor demand for the smaller STEM major supply is greater than the relative labor demand for larger non-STEM major supply. If state intervention in the market increases the number of STEM majors, then their skills will become less scarce and thus less expensive. Now we get to the Susan Patton issue. If STEM degrees are inherently valuable perhaps because technology leads to productivity gains, then increased productivity may offset the declining STEM premium. But remember the STEM major bump consists of people who wouldn’t be STEM majors without state intervention. Will they make many scientific breakthroughs? My guess is that you could throw all of FSU at string theory without making any impact. Theoretical physics is an extreme example of a genius’s game, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch on Spanish majors in engineering either. On the other hand if STEM degrees are valuable because they signal higher levels of certain kinds of intellect, dedication, whatever, then new state intervention will only distort those signals. An employer looking at UF STEM majors will now have to ask if they are looking at traditional STEM majors or poor kids who made it to the finish line. Conversely, non-STEM degrees will now convey higher dedication and/or family recourses as will college degrees overall as poorer students, less interested in or capable of STEM will probably drop out at higher rates. Either way Florida style price differentials for majors will generate unintended, perverse consequences for Governor Scott.
        An objection to this line of argument is that student degree choices are elastic, i.e. students are malleable and respond to (economic) circumstance. But according to the National Science Foundation, S and E degrees have remained pretty contest as a percentage of all higher education degrees over the past decade. That said, there are decent regional differences between say CA at 43.9% SE and MS at 26.1% SE. With a national average of 32% SE, there may be room to grow to CA like levels above 40%. However if degree choices are elastic, why aren’t more students taking STEM degrees? Are they simply unaware of the labor market? I doubt it. And if so, a media campaign would be cheaper than subsidizing STEM tuition. Do they lack long-term STEM motivation that can be overcome by subsidies at a critical juncture? Or are they weeded out of STEM by harsh introductory teaching and grading that is the real problem?

        Oh and as for the social sciences, they are hard to find in high school. But they teach and use similar methodologies/forms of thinking to the sciences but in more nebulous, difficult to experiment, and reflexive domains. Employment prospects for majors are pretty similar too, and the sorts of non-monetizable public goods provided improved public policy is enormous. So, it’s baffling to me how your criteria could coherently discriminate against economics students but not ecology majors.

        How does all of this play into our debate about capitalism with so-called Asian values? I agree that many Westerners don’t understand our foundations of success and that there are many ways to prosper. To riff off the conservative Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, the West went from 1500 A.D. backwater to leader thanks to breakthroughs in 6 areas–competition, the rule of law, consumerism, and work ethic (non-STEM) and science and medicine (STEM). Roughly, China’s rapid advances have been in science/tech, medicine, and work ethic. Do they need identical systems of competition, law, and consumerism to go from being 20% of US GDP per capital to full parity? No. But unless the CCP figures out how to share economic wealth without sharing political power, something’s got to give. If they spread the wealth, they create a middle class, i.e. domestic market, and then have to give a wide class of people power, i.e. democracy. Or they can keep pushing the export model, but a billion plus people can only out compete Africa, India, and Southeast Asia combined on cheap labor for so long before hitting a major growth wall. Ironically, the CCP knows this, which is why the Chinese are upping their investment in the humanities.

        1. First, if university level humanities were are rigourous as you say they should be, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion. Why? Because, as currently taught (music being an exception) they’ve become the “path of least resistance” in a world where people are conditioned to go after credentials because we are becoming a society driven by credentials rather than experience. In engineering at least, we lose many of our undergraduates because our curriculum is too demanding. Humanities, unfortunately, have become a relatively low cost degree to turn out for university and the “path of least resistance” for many students, thus the current situation.

          Re your remarks about history majors, this speaks to their salaries vs. the student debt they have to take on to get the degree:

          The whole business of American civics education is a sore subject with me; after all of it we still have an electorate which is basically ignorant re how our system actually works. And they’re completely clueless regarding how other systems work, or how our system compares in real terms vis a vis others. For an American to really think outside of the box that’s presented in our school systems is, as I point out here, subversive, but necessary:

          I think the whole business about “what happens when there’s an oversupply of STEM graduates” is the mirror image of “what happens when there are too many humanities graduates”. In both cases, it’s simple: they find something else to do. The question in front of us is this: which overflow is best for society? I think that’s where we differ. I think much of the pickle we’re in as a civilisation would be easier to manage if real knowledge of the sciences (and not this “science as religion” rubbish) were better diffused in our society.

          As far as Niall Ferguson’s (or anyone else’s) punch list of how Western civilisation got to the breakout it did, a list such as this begs discovery of underlying causes. Why did rule of law (as opposed to clan or patronage loyalties) become pre-emiment? How did we get a work ethic in our society in the first place? Why should there be competition, when we get the evils of capitalism in the bargain? Some of the answers to these questions will involve the Christian roots of our civilisation, something secularists dread to even discuss:

  2. Ha, ha in your worries about a lack of rigor in American education, political correctness, and poor high school preparation, you remind me of my kind uncle… the SEC English professor. I think you’re right that well taught STEM subjects can provide something of a substitute, an incomplete substitute, for bad teaching in the liberal arts, but there are many, if not enough, professors like my uncle and the ones I was privileged to know in private school who push students to their potential. There’s a whole world of “subversive,” stimulating scholarship that we can glimpse in flashes here and there as you seem to have with _Histoire generale de 1789 a nos jours_. My fundamental position is that good work in the liberal arts should be encouraged and recognized as much as possible at the societal level even if zero-sum games arise within universities.

    As for all the labor market economics, I think that the fundamental question is if we want the state to intervene in students’ choice of major. State interventions are typically broad and hard to reverse. Whereas one’s choice of study is fairly personal, contingent as it is on a range of external and internal factors like expected future labor markets and one’s interests, motivation, and strengths. Labor markets are also typically more fluid and require greater flexibility than the state can accommodate. So yes, student driven bubbles can emerge in fields like humanities Ph.D’s for tenure track jobs or law school, but they tend to reverse themselves faster than they would if we had to wait on the Florida State Legislature. After all, it’s not like the FL govt. has a crystal ball on the labor market. New research undermines the assumption of a STEM shortage in the first place:

    “The EPI study found that the United States has ‘more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations.’ Basic dynamics of supply and demand would dictate that if there were a domestic labor shortage, wages should have risen. Instead, researchers found, they’ve been flat, with many Americans holding STEM degrees unable to enter the field and a sharply higher share of foreign workers taking jobs in the information technology industry.”

    1. I too had a private school education that was generally more rigourous than the state schools but unfortunately had its problems too:

      The problem with state universities–or any really–is that their policies influence the distribution of majors one way or another. Many of the decisions being made in my own university system, intentionally or not, will undermine STEM education. Not only do we have to consider carefully direct consequences, but unintended ones as well.

  3. Interesting link. I somehow dodged or ignored those kinds of nihilist aesthete teachers, perhaps most terrifyingly described in a recent New Yorker profile of sex abuse at Horace Mann, but having working for an i-bank out of school (my major was philosophy) I know the sour brilliant type all too well. Talk about STEM and society problems. I hated seeing ex-physicts pulled out of research and into rent seeking. Unfortunately, many of those jobs don’t make the market more efficient or help anyone hedge against risk, but they’re still intellectually fairly demanding, e.g. the algorithms for flash trading are probably fairly tough to code but they don’t do anything but transfer money to flash traders while increasing volatility. (I think Congress will have to be reformed before a Wall Street deep cleanse is possible, but what was your STEM approach to dealing with regulatory capture?)

    And yes, university policy decisions affect major choices, so let me qualify my comments about state invention to say state intervention in the price of various degrees. If a Chancellor decides to go a hiring spree in chemistry or build a cool new physics lab instead of expanding the music library, then I’m fine with that so long as the musicians can still get by. What I dislike is what they call “breaking the joystick” in video game design rather than building a more challenging or complex game. That’s not to say however that you can’t factor the degree of difficulty into classroom grading. Curbing grade inflation in gut classes would do a lot to fix the sorts of “path of least resistance” problems that you mention earlier.

    1. The STEM “reply” to regulatory capture is basic integrity. One of the benefits of STEM education is supposed to be a continuous reality check, i.e., if you do something and it doesn’t work, then you’ve done something wrong and need to fix it. (That’s a rather informal definition of the scientific method, I know, but…) Unfortunately the siren call of the money trail corrupts much of what it touches. That’s why STEM people have shifted to the left the last forty years: their sustenance comes from government funding. With the financial industry, there should be some basic “scientific method” going on regarding their techniques and the results therefrom. Unfortunately it’s too easy to do the reverse of the scientists, i.e., throw money at the government via lobbying and political contributions (for and against) to keep things the way they are rather than to make them right.

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