America’s STEM obsession is not only narrow, it is dangerous

In this excellent article, Fareed Zakaria argues that our recent practice of valuing STEM education at the expense of a more broad-based liberal education will screw America over, in the long (and perhaps not-so-long) run. For one thing, it is becoming obvious that critical thinking, creativity, “people skills,” etc. are what make economies flexible and successful (a point that emerging powerhouses like China are starting to emphasize)–and America has been a flexible, vibrant economy for a century, despite the fact that our students’ math and technical skill test averages have never been particularly good, compared to other nations’. Another point is that STEM skills are exactly those skills next on the chopping block for computerization. Computers will soon be able to write their own code, for instance, but they will not (yet) be able to write their own rich, engaging narratives. So we are pushing students increasingly toward those fields whose skills are most likely to be obsolete in a generation or two, and systematically strangling the university programs that teach the skills most likely to help our current and future graduates survive the economic and career upheavals that will only increase in frequency and intensity from here on out.


There are two increasingly cynical possibilities for why the American government and people are so willing to ignore the (potentially obvious) points Zakaria made: First, nobody currently calling the shots for higher education funding has any incentive to think about other people or about the long run, because they are blinded by their own short-term financial motivations and/or their own thinking, crippled by a lack of the benefits of a liberal education.  Second (and this one is much more cynical; I wish I could find the source, where it was said far better than this): The last thing people currently in power in this government want is a populace capable of imagining alternative systems. I’m pretty sure, however, that even the most Machiavellian government administrator is perfectly OK with a population full of highly skilled technicians who have never taken a humanities or social science course.

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