Monday, February 3, 2014

The Stem of the Matter

"There is absolutely nothing in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper; and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey."  Cited in a November, 1914 issue of Washington Post, this line, often though perhaps erroneously attributed to Ruskin, states a fairly obvious business principle.  While we would acknowledge its truth with regard to something like furniture (just ask our family about our experience with a nice-looking, year-old sofa that broke when a certain Latin teacher casually sat down), we seem willing to disregard this principle when it comes to education.  For so many, the only thing that matters is a direct link between the classroom and a high-paying job.  We have come to expect a job contract with fringe benefits to be curled up inside the diploma.  From this perspective there has developed a focus on only those areas of study thought to bring about the biggest paychecks, the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes.

A recent Huffington Post piece exposes the falsehood of the notion that a non-STEM degree dooms its holder to a life of grim poverty.  Perhaps even more significant is this Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss that puts the whole STEM-only line of reasoning to the lie.  "Not everyone is the same. One virtue of a developed economy is that it provides niches for people with many different personalities and talents, making it more likely that any given individual can find a job that offers satisfaction."  In the first century B.C, had the Roman emperor Augustus followed the logic of our day, he, too, would have promoted a STEM-only agenda, one that focused on swords, torture, empire, and marching.  After all, it was the Roman legions that had brought about the Pax Augusta.  Yet the emperor chose to emphasize the arts, recognizing that no fully developed society was complete without them.  The legions still trained and marched across the Mediterranean world, but it was not an either/or proposition.  The Romans properly understood that life is almost always both/and.

"The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology.  The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future."

Complexity.  Diversity.  These are among our most cherished values.  A well-rounded education in the humanities provides that.  As Strauss observes, "The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante."  From our Latin I through Latin V classes, it is just this sort of reasoning and thinking that we engage and develop while exploring some of the most profound wisdom in some of the most eloquent and beautiful writing that humans have produced.

And as for STEM?  Of course these classes have a place in our curriculum.  Humans measure things.  We count them.  We make predictions based on hypotheses and we invent technological marvels.  STEM classes should be part of the curriculum precisely for the same reason that history and art, language and literature and music have filled the best schools around the world.  They are all part of our human story, and a humane education must embrace as much of that story as it can.

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