I recently read a letter to the editor in my local paper from someone who claimed to be an ex-college counselor. The letter said that anyone who chose a college major which was not tied to the STEM areas had been steered in the wrong direction by their high school teachers and counselors and their college counselors. The lettor went on to disparage the humanities with comments such as, “a degree in poetry is a dead end in the job market.”
As an undergraduate history major I was a bit upset and angry with the tone of this letter. After all, with a bit of further education, I had become a high school social studies teacher, a career from which I retired after 35 rewarding years. My friends who had non-STEM degrees had also had rewarding careers in law, journalism, business, and sales. Yet, there is more than career when talking about the value of the humanities.
The best prose is uplifting and necessary for the human spirit. If not a poet or writer, who will produce it? While science explains a lot, knowledge of history helps us to understand who we are, why we are that way, and perhaps to predict future action. I could go on and on about the emportance of the humanities and social sciences for the human condition, but I think my point has been made.
The emphasis on STEM education is, in part, political. So many polls point out the supposed failure of American education in science and math, yet why does the USA seem to lead the world in scientific and technology development? We have always attracted the best an brightest to our universities, which often leads to these well-educated people remaining permanently and becoming citizens. Why is it we have made it much harder for capable foreigners to come to the USA to study, and in many cases next to impossible for them to stay here? Is there really a crisis in the production of science, technology and math students or is this all part of the political move to end public education?
I’m totally on the same page with you about what I think is overinflation in the importance of STEM careers, and this is coming from someone very STEM oriented. I would argue that the emphasis on STEM education isn’t partly political - it’s almost wholly political. I wouldn’t say it’s about the internal workings of American education, however. It seems to be more of a global issue.
For the longest time in American education, there was a heavy emphasis on reading and writing, just because that’s how it started. Math education became more important as it became clear that math education was critical to a growing economy. After and during the Industrial Revolution, engineering was held up as the way to sustain society. And then Sputnik happened, which tipped us over the edge and sent Americans into a panic about how we were going to remain competitive in the global economy. The answer, which came up in the 50s and still persists today, is STEM education. All of the changes have been economically and politically-driven.
Not being an economist, I don’t know really know the impact that STEM education has on economic growth, but I can see how it’s perfectly possible that innovations generated by STEM fields tend to contribute more to our economy than those from other sectors. So there’s that. I do wish we were in a place where as a society, we could value more than the economy.
Now, in terms of the crisis in STEM education, I would point out that those aren’t just polls - they’re comparative assessments of knowledge. Most of the recent panic about American STEM education comes from PISA and TIMMS, two international assessments. I think there’s a misunderstanding on the part of detractors of American education as to what these assessments mean and how they’re related to our economy and general well-being.
(And, if I may be annoying for a second, I also feel that much of the argument surrounding the emphasis on STEM education goes back to that old fundamental question that I raise at least once a month.)