Friday, September 19, 2014

Trimming Schools at the STEM

Princeton University

Earlier this week, the venerable magazine US News & World Report (surviving now as a vestigial Internet ghost) published two editorials, in the classic “Point/Counterpoint” tradition. Their titles spell everything out: “STEM Graduates Can’t Find Jobs,” writes Rutgers sociologist Hal Salzman. The Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rothwell fires back with “The STEM Worker Shortage Is Real.” Congratulations, clear as mud. You sort the rest out yourself.

Of course, when I say “spell everything out,” I don’t actually mean everything. Neither author, first, bothers to define “STEM Worker.” The acronym STEM encompasses Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—the “hard sciences” disciplines which social prognosticators insist define what modern economies need. The STEM concept arose in immigration debates, regarding whom nations should let in, but has become predominant in education policy circles today.

Jonathan Rothwell
Rothwell begins his encomium by declaring: “It should be well-accepted that the U.S. economy could use more workers with high levels of knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” One wonders who, besides Hal Salzman, doesn’t accept this. Diverse nabobs, from Barack Obama to the National Science Foundation to the Boy Scouts of America, have launched diverse pilot programs to stimulate STEM interest. Pro-STEM enthusiasm is frankly ordinary opinion anymore.

Yet Salzman and Rothwell both assert the numbers support their respective positions. Neither personally cite their respective figures, simply trusting readers to receive one assertion over another. Rothwell probably has the easier case, since he’s simply reciting claims well-known from ad campaigns driven by ExxonMobil, the Gates Foundation, the White House, and journalists like Jeffrey Selingo and Paul Tough. Given simple familiarity, Salzman probably has to make the harder sale.

But again, both claim the numbers support them—while neither cites their numbers. The unwillingness to trust American readers with simple statistics says plenty about STEM futures. Though both authors hotlink source studies, few people have time or knowledge to parse these lengthy tomes. Therefore we don’t know basics, like: what do these studies figure into their conclusions? What do they omit? We can only trust the authors’ personal veracity.

That’s why I feel squeamish about such Delphic prognostications regarding American education. Various self-proclaimed soothsayers read the numbers, proclaim what jobs your children will have available when they finish school, and urge national curriculum planners to engineer schoolroom experience appropriately. Thus they implicitly turn your children, or you, into product marketable to buyers who don’t yet exist. School thus isn’t about improving students, it’s about fabricating resources for hypothetical buyers.

This sometime teacher believes choosing one’s academic discipline based on future remuneration resembles picking one’s spouse hoping for an inheritance. Sure, your bank account will do well, but twenty years out, you’ll be stuck with a wealthy life that doesn’t nourish your soul. We’ve all known people trapped in jobs, or marriages, unsuited to their disposition. Nobody envies their pasty-faced, dispirited shuffle through somebody else’s pre-made life.

If Americans want schools to fit students for future jobs, why don’t we invest more in trade schools? Right now, though graduates holding a four-year degree or higher have greater lifetime earning potential, graduates holding Associate’s degrees and trade certificates have greater immediate earning potential. Even after receiving postgraduate degrees, STEM graduates require years to establish careers. Trained welders, by contrast, could make enough to raise a family right away.

Hal Salzman
Salzman and Rothwell aren’t arguing about tradespeople, though. They’re discussing what topics American high schools and universities should prize. While legislators reflexively trim budgets for music, language arts, and trades in American schools, they acknowledge the pressure to emphasize STEM subjects, not because they develop more rounded students or better informed citizens, but because corporate-backed job markets demand them. This reduces STEM subjects to rote memorization, mimicry, and unthinking obedience.

This completely overlooks how humans understand STEM subjects. Ancient Greeks believed music represented applied mathematics. Galileo Galilei devised his rudimentary planetary physics after his father, a lutenist, explained how music relies upon mathematical relationships. If music obeys math, Galileo reasoned, perhaps reality does, too. All contemporary science descends from music’s mathematical precepts. When physicists say “string theory,” think violins, because that’s essentially what they mean.

Maybe STEM subjects are America’s future. But the debate isn’t really about any particular discipline. As Dana Goldstein writes, we must decide what schools are for. And if we expect students to understand and internalize STEM subjects, we should restore a diverse liberal arts core, including language arts and history, to American education. Otherwise, schools merely forward raw materials to corporations, and students aren’t wrong to resent school.

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