Why thinkpieces on STEM education are dangerous

So, I got this stupid piece on STEM education shared several hundred times on my timelines this weekend, and while it was something of a respite from the seventeen gazillion hot takes on religious liberty, it’s still an elite thinker decrying our national emphasis on STEM and saluting the liberal arts and I needed it like the proverbial hole in the head.

Can I tell you what I’m sick and tired of? I’m sick and tired of people telling me that I have to make a choice between work-ready STEM education and deep, reflective humanities learning. [1]

I have a novel proposal: why not both?

Why not serious, intense learning in mathematics and physical science HAND IN HAND with reading both the “great books” AND great books from other cultures? Why not promote better numerical literacy AND historical literacy (and, dare I say it, religious literacy) among the populace? Why not get our engineers better education in sociology? Why not get our writers better education in physical science?

My own undergraduate education was at what we’d call now a STEM-centered institution. But a funny thing was written into the academic requirements at Rose-Hulman: ten courses in the humanities and social sciences, what we derisively called “hummers” back in the day. And one of those “hummers” had to be in a “non-Western” discipline, so we wouldn’t stay locked into cultures that were our own.

Here’s the thing that I didn’t expect when I started my education: that I would wind up with a history minor despite myself. I took Western Civ with Bill Myers because I had to fill up that first-term schedule, and even before I had my first cut at Lit & Writ (the required freshman comp course at Rose), here’s this historian taking my writing and telling me it was good writing on the one hand but it had no specific examples and was terribly weak on the other. And then I had the moment of realizing that it was because in skimming all the books I was assigned, I wasn’t actually READING them and getting those specifics that Myers needed in the first place.

I thought I’d beat that “non-Western” requirement by taking Russia in the 20th Century, because of course I’d been taught about the Red Menace in high school and I could totally ace that one. But William Pickett at once captured us with the reality of the day’s headlines (this was ’91, remember, the end of the Soviet Union was very real) and at the same time drove us to explore how the history set up the present, and not to just read facts but to explore causes and debate interpretations.

(Hey VI honors students – when you got a question in class that started “affirm or deny”? That was all Pickett. I am nothing if not unoriginal.)

And all of this was happening at an engineering school where I was getting one whale of an education in physics. And every time I work to explain an idea like freefall or magnetism or the structure of the atom, and I lapse into a story about the imagination of men to see the workings of the universe that others couldn’t see, I’m drawing on the challenges that Myers and Pickett put in front of me when I was an undergraduate myself.

To give in to the lie that STEM education puts the liberal arts under threat is to give in to low expectations. Using a thinkpiece like Zakaria’s as a bludgeon to try to rally one more effort to save all that was good, right and 60’s in education is missing the point.

We treat the term “liberal arts” as if it’s MERELY the humanities, maybe with sociology thrown in for balance. We NEVER address the natural sciences or mathematics as if THEY are liberal arts as well, that the study of the foundations of STEM are ALSO necessary for the living of a balanced, whole life. And by so doing, we create conflict where no conflict is necessary; we create an excuse to dial back one form of education or another.

We need better education, across the board. We need better math education. We need better social science education. We need better engineering education. We need better fine arts education. We need better biology education. We need better humanities education. And yes, of course, we need better physical science education.

We need more impact, more effective communication, more outreach, more of everything, across the board.

The short-sighted among us will continue to remind us that money is limited, and resources is limited, and we have to conserve everything. Bluntly, they have decided that their money isn’t worth spending on doing better by those they consider to be unworthy. We need to tell a different story – that this time in history demands an increase of investment, not a decrease, and to keep our wallets in our pockets while people put false choices in front of us is to submit to our decline.

I’m not ready for decline. If you are, get out of my way.

[1] Okay, Zakaria probably doesn’t believe in that false choice either, and I’m potentially knocking down a straw man. But let me be plain: the headline set up the straw man, and the way this thing got shared on social media enhanced it. And in the times we live in, where everybody is searching for every last excuse to cut funding from every last educational practice, for my money, enabling the straw man is sin enough.