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.
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” arguments – adding 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.
- Chad Orzel is a physics professor and insightful commentator on science in pop culture. He dissects the “jiu-jitsu” of Zakaria’s argument inside an informed discussion of the slippery rhetorical moves people often make in critiquing science education.
- Another STEM faculty member, Jalees Rehman, catalogues four “misrepresentations” of STEM education in Zakaria’s piece. He pleads finally for moving beyond the C.P. Snow-type model of “two cultures” and working instead on integrating liberal arts and STEM disciplines to “improve the overall quality of education.”
- Mariappan Jawaharlal, a mechanical engineering professor, could have started off his piece insisting on an intention not to bury Zakaria but to praise him. Then he proceeds to bury him. Deeply.
- And in the screed department, though no less well reasoned, is physics instructor Chuck Pearson’s takedown. It opens up softly, “So, I got this stupid piece on STEM education shared several hundred times on my timelines this weekend,” and goes on from there.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.