First let’s get out of the way what I am not going to be talking about. I am not here to express a lack of respect for the subjects (awkwardly) lumped together under the STEM heading (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), which certainly have their intellectual demands, and are indispensable to the functioning and development of material civilization and everything else resting on it, and the expansion of human knowledge more broadly — of all of which I certainly count myself appreciative. As everything I have published should make clear, I am no Luddite by any stretch of the imagination — and indeed, even in teaching the humanities have found it very useful to draw on science in doing so, again and again.
I am also not here to denounce the stereotypical smug STEM majors who delight in “taking a dump” on the humanities. This is because while I have known many STEM majors I have not encountered people suffering from this particular impulse in person — while even among purely online acquaintances I have had the impression that people who really see the world this way are a rarity, many STEM majors quite aware that other fields of endeavor merit some respect, and even require important abilities that others may have in greater quantity than themselves, with this also meriting some respect. Indeed, if others look at their majors and say “I couldn’t handle all that math!” they look at what the English major reads and say “I couldn’t handle all that reading!” (Certainly I saw a lot of this in the response I got to my piece “Science Fiction and the Two Cultures” back when The Fix was a going concern.) Powerfully reaffirming the impression is the fact that the genuine humanities-bashers I have read have all too clearly been David Alonzo Jimmon types (“Jimmon” really needs to become a popular usage) with profound delusions of their omnicompetence and hypercompetence. (In their imagination they’re the kind of “man who discovered the wheel and built the Eiffel tower out of metal, and brawn” and don’t want you to forget it for even a second, even though in reality they’re the kind of man who can’t even operate a toaster. The others have often been humanities majors hypocritically shooting their mouths off.)
I am also not going to complain about the tendency to see college as an “investment” given that, while I do believe in the value of a trained and cultured mind, and of a broad and deep education in producing such a mind, it is the hope of a “better job” alone that can provide practical justification for the time and energy that cash-strapped, hard-pressed working class persons unable to afford intellectual and cultural “luxuries” are expected to put into getting a college degree. And I am not going to deny the validity of STEM as a career choice, not only because the work is important, but because those starting out in it admittedly do have higher chances of finding a job in their field, and having a higher starting salary.
Rather my initial reaction against the chatter about STEM was my usual suspicion when anything is reduced to a slogan glibly and ubiquitously uttered in that way more indicative of piety than thinking, with the endurance of glib talk about STEM striking me as irksome in three particular ways:
1. By way of its handy slogan-ness, the raving about STEM has played its part in perpetuating that foolish and harmful insistence on making a hierarchy of intellectual endeavor that has math, computers and physics at the top, other physical sciences below (those lowly medical researchers!), still other social sciences below them (no matter how much science, technology and math knowledge they actually involve, which can be quite a lot), humanities below that (because clearly only morons would bother to read books and learn languages), and art dead last (because it’s all just the brain-farts of the floopy). Well-educated people may not think in such simple-minded and frankly stupid ways — may even deny that anyone does (certainly many who answered my “Science Fiction and the Two Cultures” essay denied it to a degree that made me wonder just how cut off they were from the political-cultural mainstream) — but it is the “ conventional wisdom,” and if one takes “conventional wisdom” to mainly mean “what stupid people think about something” the fact that most of those who live in the world certainly espouse opinions that can be called stupid, and certainly most of those who have any significant amount of power in the world give every evidence of being stupid to a sub-human degree, makes the stupidity in question something one does better to acknowledge, and if possible debunk, rather than dismiss. This is all the more the case in that the hierarchy of intellectual endeavor has had social consequences, not least with regard to the justification of inequality and callousness toward the less fortunate — with “tech billionaires” worshipped as demigods and the disenfranchised sneeringly told “learn to code,” with those who will not, or cannot, do so deserving what they get. One can even add that all this has been bad for STEM itself — science, in the end, a philosophy, and the inability to understand the premises of that philosophy for lack of training in the requisite faculties has been cited as a factor in the reality that so much of the scientific work now ongoing by fully credentialed and employed scientists is of such poor quality as to cripple the productivity of their fields.
2. The glib STEM talk has enabled obfuscation of the bigger issue of individual returns to higher education generally. It has seemed to me for some time that the formula college=middle classness, which may always have had an element of blinkeredness, wishful thinking or outright evasion about it (e.g. telling people to take out loans for college instead of doing things that directly help working people, because that’s not what they’re really about), and which has been taken so far as to produce a situation of financial bubble in significant respects, is in an advanced state of decay. Putting it bluntly, people go to college, more often than not make somewhat more money as a result, but fall far short of the comfortable life they are led to expect. And the fuss over STEM, again, makes it easy to pretend that it is a matter of people “studying the wrong things” rather than the flaws of the bigger conception, from which STEM graduates have not been immune. If they are less likely to be underemployed than their peers in other fields 1 in 3 STEM majors still finds their first job after college in a non-STEM field, while if their starting salaries are better their longer-run earnings are not — because in contrast with someone in a non-STEM field who can expect to get more proficient at their task with experience, in a good many such fields (e.g. information technology) skills obsolesce quickly. The result is that if their skills are especially valuable in the job market at the outset the “premium” on them quickly falls away, earnings growth slows, while at any rate they rise into management jobs where their actual STEM skills are less relevant than skills of other types, or (because of the comparative lack of reward) leave their field altogether. At that stage of things they are no better off than the non-STEM types — which is just one reminder that the issue of what working people can expect today is far, far more complicated than the question of their having picked their majors “poorly” or “wisely.” Pretending otherwise makes the issue that much less likely to be addressed.
3. The STEM talk has aided in the diversion of the public from substantive discussion of the causes of economic problems. As we have been seeing since at least the decline of Britain as a manufacturing power over a century ago talk of “education,” while acknowledging an essential to a country’s engineering prowess, can easily be a cheap way of avoiding the larger subject. One should also not forget that there are many ways of thinking about the problem of improving education in STEM or any other area, while even if one does a sound job here it takes a lot more than a well-educated work force for a country to succeed as an industrial power. Quite the contrary, attention to a whole complex of issues is required — with, as a practical matter, a thoroughgoing industrial policy typically required for development, and countries which abandon that, and leave their manufacturing to sink or swim on its own usually seeing it do the former rather than the latter (as the records of Britain and the U.S. in particular have shown, especially when measured against those of Germany and Japan). Indeed, for as long as I can remember talk of “education” has played this part in the U.S., enabling our neoliberal politicians and media to overlook how, for example, government policies in such areas as trade, infrastructure, regulation of the financial sector and the distribution of “corporate welfare” have produced a financialized, speculation-oriented economy about “making money from money” in favor of flinging accusations at schoolteachers as incompetent gold-brickers (the better to advance the crush-the-public-unions-and-privatize-everything agenda so dear to them), and maligning young people as lazily steering clear of “tough” STEM majors in favor of “soft” subjects. And in making those accusations the accusers (Public Intellectuals who studied the same soft subjects themselves, and did very well out of their careers or we wouldn’t have to hear their idiocies) can lay it on very thick indeed.
That such nonsense is treated with respect says a great deal about the abysmal intellectual level of public debate and the news media so crucial to it — which no amount of STEM education would alleviate by itself.