Why Aren’t More Young People Attracted to Study of and Careers in STEM Subjects? A Thought
Before proceeding any further I think it necessary to say that there is a considerable body of literature debunking the myth of a (to use the awkward and fuzzy but nonetheless pervasive term) “STEM” skills shortage, and that I generally agree with the case it makes. (Indeed, far from America’s young people determinedly refusing to study STEM my own examination of the recent data shows that even when we cut foreign students in the country on a visa out of the picture American colleges’ output of B.A.s in engineering surged by 50 percent in the 2010–2020 period.)
It also seems to me worth saying that the endurance of the myth of a STEM skills shortage is entirely political — a matter of scapegoating the humanities, intellectuals and young people for the country’s industrial weakness, and the difficult prospects of college graduates, and that the reason this is so successful is because of the numerous interests that find this convenient, and the deference shown them by a news media that never fails to fulfill its designated role as their (to use the most polite word of which I can think) courtiers.
Still, even if there is no shortage of STEM personnel, it does not seem to me inaccurate to say that young people are less attracted to it than to other subject matter which may be less promising career-wise.
It is virtually certain that many factors are operative here — like the extreme variation in American educational outcomes at the K-12 level that means many never had a shot at the proper foundations (you won’t do well in trigonometry if your algebra is shaky), and the snobbery that surrounds the stupid hierarchy some make of intellectual life (the stridency about math being superior to words, science to arts, etc. intimidating many and sending many persons with the required aptitudes in other directions).
But I think one particularly overlooked factor is the absence of something we see in other areas.
Consider, for instance, their study of English. Certainly few seem to be very satisfied with the quality of the education imparted in this area, with some justice. (In a country where, on average, people have two years of college — have gone up to “grade 14” — why do they generally read at an eighth grade level?)
But learning here is not limited to what goes on in the classroom. Consider how — not so very long ago — many people read — for fun.
Not everyone was a reader. (Even before the explosion of electronic home entertainment there were those who preferred sports.) And those who did read did not always read the sort of things their parents and teachers would have liked them to be reading. But they read all the same. In the process they practiced their skills, and enlarged their vocabularies, even when they were only entertaining themselves.
Some people even wrote — for fun. They produced diaries, journals, stories — sometimes even whole novels. (A fifteen year old’s first novel is not likely to be a great work of literature — but all the same, novels.) And in the process they worked on the relevant skills yet again.
Many, in fact, enjoyed it so much that they aspired to do this kind of thing for a living — so many that, in spite of what was more often than not the extreme discouragement of the people around them, and the extremely long odds against their ever making a living this way — they put a lot of time and effort into trying to do that. And while this is not a particularly happy part of the story it seems to me that what led up to that did make a difference in the overall level of ability people had, and their willingness to pursue degrees and take up jobs where their English skills are relevant.
There simply was not the same opportunity to amuse themselves with numbers that there was with words; to, in the course of pure recreation, improve their mathematical skills the same way; to exercise their imaginations, and express themselves, and play, with numbers the way they could with words; and to do what all this made possible, discover a passion for the activity. Of course, some fell in love with numbers anyway. But the odds, the chances, were far fewer. Save for those few who were exceptionally susceptible to its attraction, or had special opportunity to get interested (perhaps because they had a knowledgeable parent who knew how to intrigue them, who was able to show them that here, too, there could be imagination and play and much else), math was plain and simple work — something they had to study in a highly structured, punitive, stress-and-fear-filled environment which made many want to have nothing to do with it when they could avoid it. Which diminished the odds of becoming attracted to math yet again.
I do not know that it could necessarily have been any other way. But the fact that it has not been that other way must be accounted a part of the story — while it may factor into how the situation is changing. Again, looking over the B.A.s being rewarded I was struck by how the popularity of English as a college major plummeted in recent years, such that where the allotment of some 50,000 such bachelor’s degrees seemed to be the norm in the 1990s and the twenty-first century down to 2013–2014 the figure stood at under 40,000 in 2018–2020 (a fall from the level of 5 percent of the degrees awarded in 1990–1991 to under 2 percent of them in 2019–2010, and perhaps still falling). One can argue that the endless drum-beating on behalf of STEM, STEM, STEM! (and the denigration of the humanities that has gone with it) has factored into their choosing other studies and other careers. However, it may also be no coincidence that the age cohort getting those later degrees grew up in a more fully digital age where there was less and less scope for reading to compete with other entertainments — and the smart phone, in its having everyone taking the whole package of electronic entertainment options everywhere with them, delivered a Mortal Kombat-like finishing blow. Bluntly put, we have fewer English majors because we have fewer people who found that they liked to read — in what can seem another rebuke to that conventional wisdom which, again, is ever conventional, but rarely wise.