The Case Against STEM

Listen to an education reformer for more than five minutes and you’re likely to hear about STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math. Students, we are told, must study more of these topics, otherwise they will be unable to compete in the world and our economy is doomed. Or something like that.

However, a columnist for the Washington Post says that our obsession with STEM education is not only based on a “fundamental misreading of the facts”, it “puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future”.

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.

The current overemphasis on STEM is largely related to standardized tests, the core of most ed reform efforts. US students generally score behind many other countries on one particular international testing program, “trailing nations such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia”. STEM advocates declare that our students must be immersed in math and science in order to return the country to the top of the world heap, where we belong.

Except that the US has never been at the top of that particular world heap.

In truth, though, the United States has never done well on international tests, and they are not good predictors of our national success. Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math. And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.

Then there’s the matter that even the companies and organizations considered most innovative want their employees to come with “skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum”.

Finally, the writer makes the case that a broad-based, liberal education – one that includes science and math in balance – would be better for both students and the country.

This doesn’t in any way detract from the need for training in technology, but it does suggest that as we work with computers, the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out – yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.

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