Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous

Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos (Photos by Getty Images and AFP/Photos by Getty Images and AFP)

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 foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities. From President Obama on down, public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today’s world. 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.” America’s last bipartisan cause is this: A liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward. It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition. The stakes could not be higher.

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.

For most of its history, the United States was unique in offering a well-rounded education. In their comprehensive study, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” Harvard’s Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz point out that in the 19th century, countries like Britain, France and Germany educated only a few and put them through narrow programs designed to impart only the skills crucial to their professions. America, by contrast, provided mass general education because people were not rooted in specific locations with long-established trades that offered the only paths forward for young men. And the American economy historically changed so quickly that the nature of work and the requirements for success tended to shift from one generation to the next. People didn’t want to lock themselves into one professional guild or learn one specific skill for life.

That was appropriate in another era, the technologists argue, but it is dangerous in today’s world. Look at where American kids stand compared with their peers abroad. The most recent international test, conducted in 2012, found that among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranked 27th in math, 20th in science and 17th in reading. If rankings across the three subjects are averaged, the United States comes in 21st, trailing nations such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia.

In truth, though, the United States has never done well on international tests, and they are not good predictors of our national success. Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math. And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.

Consider the same pattern in two other highly innovative countries, Sweden and Israel. Israel ranks first in the world in venture-capital investments as a percentage of GDP; the United States ranks second, and Sweden is sixth, ahead of Great Britain and Germany. These nations do well by most measures of innovation, such as research and development spending and the number of high-tech companies as a share of all public companies. Yet all three countries fare surprisingly poorly in the OECD test rankings. Sweden and Israel performed even worse than the United States on the 2012 assessment, landing overall at 28th and 29th, respectively, among the 34 most-developed economies.

Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous