Columnist: Thought of the Day — Should STEM be our first priority?

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 25, 2015

By Sydney M. Williams

Contributing columnist

The short answer is ‘no.’ At least, that is my opinion.

We all agree that STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are vital to the world we live in. But today’s emphasis on those four disciplines presumes knowledge about the future that is impossible to know.

New industries will start up in the next 15 to 20 years. Students who have specialized in STEM subjects may have an advantage today, but who among us knows what jobs will be in demand 10 or 20 years from now?

Some businesses will produce products and provide services we cannot envision today. Twenty-five years ago, did most educators anticipate the revolution in marketing that was a consequence of the Internet? Was it more important that Jeff Bezos understood differential calculus, or was his success a product of being able to conceive of and conceptualize a form of selling to consumers that had never before existed?

The purpose of education, beginning with the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic (what my parent’s generation knew as the three ‘R’s), is to stimulate the mind — to encourage the quest for knowledge, to learn to challenge and question, to appreciate the joy of learning.

A liberal arts college is not a trade school. It is an incubator for ideas. College should provide a forum that allows students to ingest and process myriad ideas.

There are guidelines for graduating seniors, but there are no road maps, as each life lived is different and job opportunities tomorrow may be in areas we cannot conceive of today. A good education should help young people learn to maximize their strengths and to understand and compensate for their weaknesses.

It should help enable them to adapt to a changing environment. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but data from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that the average person will have about ten jobs during their working life.

The focus on STEM courses has come to the fore because of the political concern over rising income inequalities and because we know that jobs have gone begging for lack of qualified applicants. The emphasis is understandable.

But, besides presuming to know an unknowable future, it presupposes an equality in students that does not exist. Ability, aspiration and dedication are qualities that differ among all of us.

While the work done by Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry in the late 1970s on Left Brain-Right Brain theory has been largely dismissed, there is no question that people vary in their abilities in regard to logic, numbers and rational reasoning.

Schools and colleges (and students, of course) need to focus on each individual’s talents. The opportunity to study STEM courses should be available to all, but so should the opportunity to study English and Philosophy.

While I don’t believe a college education is necessary for all, research suggests that it can increase social mobility. A recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco showed that children who are born into the poorest fifth of income distribution are six times as likely to reach the top fifth if they graduate from college.

I also believe that learning and knowledge leads to greater happiness, an often overlooked but important advantage of education.

However, the assumption that universal college education will magically reverse income distribution is a myth told by politicians who live in a world of sound bites. There is a pyramid shape to all of our lives.

Every business has one chief executive. Our country has one president and each state has one governor. There is a hierarchy in our schools and colleges, just as there is in the military.

It is true in all human endeavors, just as it is in the animal kingdom. Who has not heard of alpha dogs or queen bees? Who has not witnessed the lead duck in a V-formation as they migrate south or north? There will always be a few leaders and many followers.

We hear calls for more equality in terms of outcomes. But that is a siren call of populism, rather than a realistic policy recommendation.

Are income and wealth spreads too big? Who’s to say? The gaps may be wider than 40 years ago, but history shows the spreads are nowhere near as wide as they were 100, 300 or 500 years ago.

History also shows the gap is far wider in Communist and totalitarian regimes than in democracies. We cannot all be rich, and we will not all be poor. I never ran a company, but as grandparents, my wife and I now sit atop the apex of our family pyramid — a position we achieved not because of “fairness,” but because of mutual love and longevity. And, yes, it was something to which we aspired.

The more important area of focus should be ensuring that colleges remain classically liberal. Ironically, the biggest threat comes from those institutions that consider themselves most liberal, an example being the University of California.

According to Heather MacDonald, in the magazine City, the regents of the UC are devising “principles against intolerance,” to protect the university’s core principles of “respect, inclusion and academic freedom.” Those principles would seem to be ones with which all reasonable people would agree.

But, as Ms. MacDonald wrote, “Any university run as a meritocracy will be naturally inclusive of anyone who brings intellectual talent and rigor to the institution.”

“Respect,” as she noted, “is ordinarily earned by intellectually solid research.”

Any university that bars from speaking those of differing ideas is, definitionally, intolerant. In fact, what the university is doing is erecting roadblocks that would inhibit speech and behavior when they are deemed antithetical to the beliefs of the institutions’ administrators and professors.

For example, using the term “America is a land of opportunity” is considered a racial micro-aggression, as it is seen as an attack on certain “victim” groups.

“Trigger warnings” have become a favorite of the Left. In last Sunday’s New York Times, Kate Manne, an assistant professor at Cornell, wrote an op-ed, “Why I Use Trigger Warnings.”

She wrote:

“The idea (for trigger warnings) was to flag content that depicted or discussed common causes of trauma, like military combat, child abuse, incest or sexual violence. People then could choose whether or not to engage with this material.”

The problem is that in living our lives we do not always have that choice. We must be able to confront the unpleasant as well as the pleasant. The horrors of the Holocaust leap from the pages of Babi Yar.

It may offend, but in its words are universal lessons. “Huckleberry Finn” may have language that some find offensive, but in ignoring it students are deprived of a moral story told with action and humor — a slice of life in mid-19th century America. Are we better off to be comforted but ignorant?

The first priority of education should be to ensure graduates have the ability to think independently and to reason out problems. History and literature are the best manuals in understanding human behavior. Education should prepare youth for a future unknown.

Sydney Williams, a retired stock broker, writes about politics, the economy, global affairs, education and climate, among other topics. He describes his political leanings as being based in the rapidly disappearing ideology of common sense.