Rethinking the Rise of STEM Education?

April 8, 2015

By Sarah Galey

If you are working in American schools today, you have probably heard about the need for more STEM education. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education and is often used today in reference to curriculum choices that improve students’ competitiveness in a modern, high-tech workforce.

But is such an intense focus on STEM a good idea? Most would say yes. America, so the narrative goes, became a global leader largely because of the innovations of it scientists and engineers – think Silicon Valley and Bill Gates. However, American students persistently lag behind other countries in globally benchmarked math and science tests like PISA and TIMSS. This trend has sparked an almost frantic pursuit amongst policymakers to improve mathematics and science achievement, lest we fall behind and lose our global standing.

Thus, in a recent Washington Post article, an influential journalist and writer Fareed Zakaria caused quite a stir (see rebuttals here, here, and here) when he forcefully questioned the wisdom of “America’s obsession with STEM.”

America’s Dangerous Obsession with STEM

According to Zakaria, American’s fixation with STEM comes at the expense of a liberal education – an argument he presents thoroughly in his new book In Defense of a Liberal Education. Public officials from President Obama on down, have questioned the value of pursuing a degree in the humanities. Degrees like Art History and Music Appreciation are seen a frivolous luxury with no real economic value. Instead, students should be taking hard sciences and learning how to become engineers and computer programmers to meet the needs of a technologically advanced global economy. Some Republicans have gone as far as suggesting that these kinds of majors should be defunded at public universities. “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to private school and take it,” quipped North Carolina governor, Patrick McCrory (Rep) in a 2013 radio interview. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Zakaria argues that this kind of thinking is misguided and may serve to quash innovation rather than to inspire it. If America really wants to stay on top, we should not be dismissing broad-based learning and narrowing the scope of what students learn. “A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity,” points out Zakaria, “Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization.” Put differently, even though American students may not reach the same levels of achievement in math and science as other countries, they possess the kind of confidence, creativity and freethinking that is essential for entrepreneurship and innovation. Being innovative is not just about having technical skills – it about being able to imagine and reimagine how those technologies interact with human beings and impact the society. Even more important, however, Zakaria’s main point is really that there should be balance in the curriculum between STEM and other subjects in schooling; blindly overemphasizing STEM, especially only the applied aspects, may eventually diminish the creativity of our students.

The Rebuttal – Drawing a False Dichotomy

Although quite eloquent, Zakaria’s rhetoric runs the risk of drawing a false dichotomy between STEM and the humanities. One could also argue, after all, that there are humanities majors within STEM education. Take for example, bioethics or many branches of economics.  The sciences and the humanities need each other. Moreover, an overemphasis on STEM can hurt other “hard” subjects too. Pure mathematics, for example, is often criticized as being less valuable than applied mathematics, but one would not know if pure math is really just theoretical until the application of it has been discovered. The divide here seems to really be between divergent perspectives about the purposes of education, especially among policymakers, rather than the educators. For policymakers who adopt a pragmatic view of education and see it as something to give young people existing jobs, there is an inclination to overemphasize STEM education. This may be a shortsighted policy view, but it is not a reflection of an inherent split between the sciences and humanities. Policymakers and educators should try to find harmony between the two and we should avoid pitting them against each other in the discourse.