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?