Are We Overboard on STEM?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013 -- Scott Sterling

It’s been a few years since the world was graced with the acronym STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Educational thought leaders and, eventually, politicians used it to signal a need to move the country’s education system in a new direction.

It was warned that failing to do so would make us less competitive in the global economy compared to such countries as China and India, who apparently eat, sleep, and dream STEM. Fittingly, educational consumers listened, including the ones in the best position to vote with their wallets: only 20% of students at Harvard are majoring in some form of the humanities, instead opting for STEM fields.

Naturally this is out of fear of the employment prospects of humanities majors after college. When you’re faced with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, a high-paying job is important.

Let’s think for a second, generally, about what people trained in STEM are able to do in the workplace. Logical thinking would top the list, followed by computational skills and investigational inquiry. Depending on the specific field, creativity may or may not be required.

Creativity, however, is the hallmark of almost every field of the humanities. Studies in the humanities also train students to be able to switch from granular thinking to big-picture contemplation rather instinctively. They also generate quite a few “what if?” thinkers.

Not to mention that in any business, the key skill that separates management material from the drones is the ability to communicate in a variety of ways, most importantly through writing.

The time is coming where more than just college students will become STEM obsessed. Parents will want their kids to focus on their STEM homework more than the other subjects. School boards will devote more resources to the STEM fields. Humanities courses will be more likely to be cancelled for the various extracurricular activities that school administrators have to entertain, like picture days and pep rallies.

Neither side is the be-all-end-all of education. The most successful people need at least basic knowledge in both to become a well-rounded citizen, as well as a deep curiosity to investigate topics on either side. And no, Facebook and Google are not beating down the doors at the humanities departments like they are at the computer sciences and engineering buildings.

But every business needs creative people. Every business needs at least one person who can write effectively for a variety of audiences. And, frankly, some kids just can’t STEM. We need to be just as vigilant in providing opportunities for those kids as we are for creating the next Mark Zuckerburgs of the world.