Wednesday, April 01, 2015

America's "obsession with STEM education" is neither an obsession, nor is it dangerous

I'm late to the party about Fareed Zakaria's piece in the Washington Post titled "Why America's Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous".  Zakaria is a smart guy, and I recognize that he has a book to sell, but this article is rhetorically frustrating:  He demolishes a serious straw man.  He wants people to be aware of the importance of a broad-based education, and he is apparently worried (or claiming to be for the sake of getting attention) that the US is culturally too focused on STEM and not enough on the other things, like creativity, the arts, and teaching people how to write well.

He is absolutely right that a broad-based education is generally a good idea, and that teaching people actual critical thinking and writing skills and an appreciation for things beyond math and science is also good.  However, I don't think you'll find any reasonable person advocating for purely technical educations with no cultural appreciation and ignoring teaching people how to communicate.   It's easy to demolish an argument that no one is making.  I could write 500 words about how it's crazy for people to drive themselves into crushing debt to get degrees that fail to teach them anything beyond rudimentary writing skills, but that would not be an assault on liberal education.

In two key respects, Zakaria has missed the boat.  First, while there is basically zero chance that we are going to abandon broad-based education in the US, it does seem like there is a far more real danger that we are trending away from science and rationality (c.f. vaccines, evolution, climate science).  Second, and here he was much closer to right, there is a danger in viewing absolutely all public investment in people (via education) and research purely in terms of short-term economic benefit - essentially eschewing basic research or basic education in favor purely of applied research and vocational training of obvious economic benefit to the country.   Frankly, there are people out there who truly do not believe in public education, period, and that's much scarier to me than an imagined attack on the value of the humanities as a component of an education.


Anonymous said...

My experience has been that many people that make arguments along these lines don't have a great idea of the value of scientific education. Indeed the best scientists are often the ones that are the most creative and outside-the-box and yet when people learn that I am a physicist, they often assume that I am not a creative person. Additionally, "critical thinking" has become a bit of a buzzword as to render the phrase meaningless. I love the arts and literature and they inspire my work, and I consider myself a critical thinker and persuasive public speaker. This needs to be a bigger part of the narrative about science education.

Anonymous said...

There is great need to engage with the public about pressing issues such as climate change, economic growth, disease and education using quantitative ideas - I am particularly fond of those that involve 'back of the envelope' estimates. For example - How much water are we using? Where does it come from and go to? When do we have a problem? There is a lot at stake in getting this right in order for us to use our resources better and get our policies and politics on the right path. Everyone - not just STEM students - needs to develop the quantitative skills necessary to engage in this kind of critical thinking. Perhaps just as much as the ability to write.

Anonymous said...

" does seem like there is a far more real danger that we are trending away from science and rationality "

Now that is amusing considering the two paragons of public research journals, 'Science' and 'Nature', are continuously filled with outright fraudulent papers laughed off as just excessive exuberance. Of course, Mr. Natelson doesn't like to be reminded that the house of scientific research is a pigsty with out of control corruption.

They could shut down 80% of the universities for all I care.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon@10:21, you seem angry with me for some reason, based on this and your comment the other day.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Zakaria - writing skills are important. For example, one should NOT plagiarize. Mr. Zakaria knows a lot about importance of not plagiarizing other people's writing.

But STEM fields ARE all about creativity. Most creative achievements over the past 100 years were in STEM, and not humanities or political commentary on CNN or writing books about lack of creativity while plagiarizing others.

Actually, STEM involves a great deal of original writing. And it is actually more original than half-baked contrarian arguments from someone desperate to make $$$ on book sales.