STEM "Dangers" Just Don't Rate

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall ...

A risk of showing yourself smart in some areas is that people start soliciting your views on other things, too. A disciplined mind will recognize topics less subordinated to its vise-like grasp and qualify its responses as perhaps not fully informed.

Fareed Zakaria in Davos

Fareed Zakaria in Davos

Work, however, on television might well vitiate this impulse. Such would seem to be the case with foreign-policy expert turned CNN host Fareed Zakaria, who has swung outside his scholarly power zone to pronounce rather vapidly on matters to do with STEM education.

In  Why America's Obsession with STEM Education Is Dangerous, widely circulated and commented on over the last week, Zakaria marshals sophistic rhetoric to defend liberal education against incursions supposedly being mounted by a push for technical, job-related skills under the rubric of STEM education.

Talk Both Fast and Loose

Let’s examine just the first paragraph to take some of the stuffing out of the STEM straw man Zakaria constructs:

“If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science – and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundation to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.”

To be sure, the humanities are up against it these days, what with small, tuition-driven liberal arts schools in crisis (RIP Sweet Briar College). The threat is not coming from STEM education supporters, though; if anything, the “STEAM” argumentsadding an “A” for arts to the STEM formula – are where the action is in the field. But STEM education activists are not actually whom Zakaria has in mind.

“From President Obama on down, public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history…. Republicans want to go several steps further and defund these kinds of majors. ‘Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?’ asked Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott. ‘I don’t think so.’”

Except that, um, President Obama walked back his “caution” almost immediately, retracting it in a hand-written note to a leading art historian at the University of Texas: “Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history… I was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honorable career.”

At Least He Apologizes

Republicans, on the other hand, get truly exercised about “S” topics, not “A” topics. Take, oh, evolution, for example. The Republican “war on science” is fully detailed in a 2006 book called … The Republican War on Science. And pronouncements from the right on climate change, reproductive biology, the fossil record, etc., only further substantiate the book’s claims. Academic research elucidates this phenomenon to a demoralizing degree.

How Zakaria's Piece Has Played

Anyway, my arguments with Zakaria's piece find expansion and diversification among other, lengthier responses.

A Constructive Conclusion

One larger challenge underlying all these responses, as well as Zakaria’s own piece, lies in the need broadly to reimagine and then reconstruct STEM education. This operation should better align with the cognitive, cultural, socioeconomic, and gender diversity of current student populations.

Dave Goldberg and Mark Somerville have thought and written deeply about this topic, most fully in their book A Whole New Engineer. Published just the day before Zakaria’s piece, their brief resignification of “diversity” in the STEM education discussion nevertheless answers its main complaint about “narrowness” in technical education. It points intelligently towards how the field can transcend this narrowness that Zakaria and most everyone else agrees limits its appeal and utility.

What do you think about Zakaria’s piece? Is STEM education too narrow for all the aspirations and expectations loaded onto it? Where, if at all, do liberal arts connect with STEM disciplines? Send us your views or leave them in comments.

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

And don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering outreach books, Start Engineering, and Dream, Invent, Create.

Photos: Danger, used by permission of 3dpete; Fareed Zakaria, used by permission of World Economic Forum; Watching Renoir, used by permission of dee_dee_creamer