Everyone seems to agree we need to focus more on STEM education: science, technology, engineering, and math. But in our rush to prioritize those subjects, we’re overlooking others that are even more important.
In a rare show of unanimity, both the Obama and Trump administrations have championed a focus on STEM subjects. The Obama administration called for initiatives like raising over $1 billion in private investment and training 100,000 new math and science teachers by 2021. The Trump administration recently released a report outlining its “five-year vision” on boosting STEM education. There’s even a push to expand STEM to preschool.
One reason for this enthusiasm is the perception that employers can’t find enough qualified individuals to fill STEM positions—and that the number of such positions is expected to grow rapidly. But the real picture is complicated, not least by the fact that the definition of a STEM job is murky. There’s a shortage of qualified applicants in certain STEM areas but a surplus in others. And some projections suggest that overall STEM job growth will slow.
But even if the number of STEM jobs zooms, the majority of Americans will continue to labor in non-STEM occupations. Depending on the way the STEM workforce is defined, it constituted only between five and twenty percent of the American workforce in 2015. Employers are more likely to say they want workers with general analytical and problem-solving skills rather than specific STEM qualifications. They also value so-called “soft” skills like leadership and the ability to work as part of a team. Written and oral communication skills are also high on their list.
How to develop these skills? For the most part, they can’t be taught directly, like the skill of riding a bike, but emerge only in tandem with the acquisition of knowledge and experience. So you might argue that even if most students won’t end up as STEM workers, they’ll acquire those desirable skills if they take STEM classes. After all, math and science require rigorous logical reasoning; engineering demands problem-solving and teamwork. Many people with STEM degrees end up working in non-STEM fields, perhaps because employers see those credentials as a proxy for the skills they want.
It’s true that STEM classes—taught well—can develop those skills. But so can virtually any other class, as long as it’s rich in content and the teacher asks the right kinds of questions. And it matters what kind of knowledge students are acquiring. The reason is that it’s impossible to think analytically about a topic you know little or nothing about. STEM education may produce workers who can analyze engineering or math problems, but if they know nothing about, say, Chinese history, they probably won’t be able apply those skills to a question about the Ming Dynasty.
That doesn’t mean everyone needs to learn about the Ming Dynasty. Rather, we need to immerse students in as much information as we can. The more knowledge you have lodged in your long-term memory, the better your chances of being able to take in and analyze any new information you come across. As one commentator has put it, the idea is to have a “knowledge party” going on in your head, where even a simple word like “apple” triggers a host of associations.
At the same time, though, we can’t invite everyone to the party. The number of hours in the school day is finite, and we need to consider what we’re giving up if we prioritize some subjects over others. There’s no way of knowing exactly what information any given student will need to draw on in the future, but it’s possible to predict the general kind of knowledge most Americans will need to participate successfully in society and lead fulfilling lives. And the question is whether an emphasis on STEM will provide that.
We also need to consider what STEM education looks like for many American students, especially those who are most disadvantaged. In its ideal form, STEM education has students learn by collaborating on building a “staircase to nowhere” or finding a solution to some real-world problem by drawing on math, science, and engineering concepts simultaneously. But that project-oriented approach is generally less effective and harder to implement than having a teacher explain concepts directly, especially when students lack basic background knowledge. And in a low-achieving school where many ninth-graders struggle to pass a required algebra course, an emphasis on “STEM” is likely to mean a lot of drilling in math. (Some have argued that even the algebra requirement should be eliminated because most students are unlikely to need it.)
Certainly we need to do whatever we can to ensure that students from historically underrepresented populations get the chance to enter STEM fields if they want to. But while many are pushing for a greater focus on STEM, alarm is spreading over what some have characterized as a crisis in civics education. Scores on national tests in that subject, along with history and geography, are alarmingly low, with only about a quarter of students scoring at the proficient level. Teachers in low-performing high schools have told me their students are often unclear on the differences between a city and a state, or a country and a continent. They may think London is the capital of Paris or be unable to find the United States on a map of the world. Even college students can be stumped by questions like what country we won our independence from, or who won the Civil War. One survey found that more than a third of adults were unable to name any of the rights protected by the First Amendment and only a quarter could identify the three branches of government.
We know that only a minority of students will end up working in STEM fields. But virtually all will be expected to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. And if they don’t have the background knowledge and vocabulary necessary to understand a newspaper article or even a news report on TV, we’re all in trouble.
When students reach high school, it’s fine for them to gravitate towards one area of study—but only if they’ve gotten a sound foundation in a range of subjects beginning in elementary school. And if we want students to understand the basics of civics and geography, the best entry point is history. It can be taught as a series of compelling narratives that provide the cognitive framework we need to absorb and analyze information about the world around us. But because of mistaken beliefs that young children aren’t interested in history—or that it’s just not that important—kids have little chance of getting exposed to it in school.
I myself never took calculus or physics—or even chemistry—and I don’t remember much of the math and biology I did take. While I’d like to have a better grounding in those subjects, I don’t feel my lack of knowledge has handicapped me. But if I hadn’t learned much as a child and adolescent about the history and geography of the country I live in and the larger world, I would have a much harder time making sense of the present. That, unfortunately, is the situation in which many Americans find themselves because our schools have failed to equip them with the knowledge they need.
Maybe history, geography and civics can’t be combined into a catchy acronym like STEM (suggestions, anyone?), but if we want our democratic system of government to survive and flourish, those are the subjects we need to prioritize.