Sometime around 1980 when I was in junior high school, I took a course on the computer programming language Basic. My late father truly believed that in the future, everyone would have to learn how to program computers in order to use them, a belief he undoubtedly picked up through his extensive reading of news magazines.
Of course, we don’t have to know programming in order to use computers, any more than we have to know the details of how cars function in order to drive them. Yet over the last several decades, we have seen many other technology-related predictions also turn out spectacularly wrong. From Y2K to MOOCs to the supposed Earth-shattering capabilities of 3-D printers, we should have learned long ago that these predictions are self-serving claims that push society, and frequently education, in directions that benefits certain industries and firms, all the while providing a gigantic distraction from the realities of our economy and daily lives.
The current fixation with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is yet another example of this line of thinking on a grand scale. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently published new 10-year projections for the labor market, and, once again, only a little over 6 percent of all jobs are in STEM fields, a number that is not projected to increase much in the next 10 years. And this estimate includes jobs in sales, management and higher education, as well as those requiring less than a bachelor’s degree, leaving a small number of jobs for college graduates majoring in STEM fields. Yet in educational circles, STEM is seen as the ticket to employment and economic stability while the liberal arts and humanities are increasingly seen as the ticket to failure. From pre-K through higher education, it’s STEM-mania.
The Trump administration is determined not to be outdone in STEM promotion, and last year published a strategy for “the next five years based on a Vision for a future where all Americans will have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education and the United States will be the global leader in STEM literacy, innovation, and employment.”
Let us consider that this comes from a president who proudly rejects climate science, routinely censors scientists in government agencies, and recently threatened to fire officials who did not affirm his false claims about the trajectory of a hurricane. Thus it’s not surprising that nowhere in the report’s 48 pages is there any mention of problems such as global warming, antibiotic resistance, or cancer. Rather, the report emphasizes the need for all Americans to develop their “computational thinking” and “transdisciplinary learning” skills, and is filled with the requisite tech-inspired jargon about the need for workers to constantly engage in “upskilling” and “reskilling.”
About creating a certain kind of labor market
Juxtaposing Trump’s glibly anti-science ideology with the administration’s STEM report should finally put to rest any notion that STEM has anything to do with either the critical role of science in addressing society’s most pressing problems or any realistic assessment of the labor market. Rather, the focus on STEM is primarily about creating a certain kind of labor market that benefits particular types of employers and also shifting the entire debate about wage stagnation and declining economic opportunity away from business and public policy and back on students and the educational system. Can’t pay your student loans? Still in your parents’ house? You shouldn’t have majored in [insert non-STEM field here]. Should have majored in STEM!
Despite its apparent dominance, however, there are obvious cracks in the STEM public-relations machine. Because we all live in the real economy and can see that the job market is not dominated by loads of high-paying STEM jobs, industry and trade groups have recently taken a new tack by arguing that STEM education is a cure for poverty. Echoing this line, the president claimed: “My Administration will do everything possible to provide our children, especially kids in underserved areas, with access to high-quality education in science, technology, engineering, and math.”
Time-tested talking points
But these talking points have been used for decades to sell all sorts of education policies. For example, we have been repeatedly told that business-driven education policies such as charter schools, vouchers, and high-stakes testing and accountability, are all primarily about lifting children out of poverty. Moreover, this sudden concern for children in “underserved areas” is especially hollow coming from a president who heads a Republican Party that vigorously opposes any increase in the minimum wage, is doing its best to dismantle public health insurance, has an ongoing war against organized labor, and is trying diligently to reduce SNAP benefits for millions of Americans. So I’m not so sure that lower-wage families in this country will sleep much better tonight when they find out the president is prioritizing their children’s computational thinking skills.
In Federalist #10, written decades before the birth of Karl Marx, none other than the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, recognized that society is made up of different economic interests: “But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.”
We should recognize the wisdom of Madison’s formulation (which you would learn in political science and history classes) and see STEM-mania for what it is: a product of decades of successful lobbying and public relations by certain interests.
Neil Kraus, professor and chair of political science at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, is the author of two books, and is writing a book on education policy and economic inequality.
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