Should we scrap STEM in high school?

STEM topics are important (duh!). Finding the future scientists who will improve my health and quality of living is important to me. I want society to cast a wide net to find all those poor kids, minority kids, and girls we’re currently training to be cute who, in the right setting, could be the ones to save me from the cancer I’m statistically likely to get.

But how much value are we really getting from 12th grade? I’m pulling a bait and switch with the title to this post–I think we should keep the norm of teaching 9th graders basic science. But by 12th grade, are we really getting enough value to warrant the millions of hours per year of effort we demand of 16-18-year olds? I’m skeptical.

There are lots of things that should be taught in school. Ask any group of people and you’ll quickly come up with a long list of sensible sounding ideas (personal finance, computer programming, economics, philosophy, professional communication, home ec., and on and on and on). But adding more content only means we do a worse job at all of it. And that means an increased chance of students simply rejecting those topics wholesale.

Society is filled with science/econ deniers of all persuasions. Anti-intellectuals have been a major constituency for at least the last decade. It’s not like these folks didn’t go to school. Someone tried to teach them. What I want to know is how things have would been different if we’d tried something other than overwhelming these people with authoritatively delivered facts (which seem to have resulted in push-back rather than enlightenment)?

The last 6+ years of trying to teach economics to college kids against their will has convinced me that art (especially literature and drama) affects us much more than dissecting frogs or solving equations. And exposing kids to more literature and drama has the added benefit of (possibly) helping them develop their literacy (which we’ve forgotten is not a binary variable).

Although casting a wide net to find potential scientists is important, ultimately, we only need scientific knowledge in the heads of those who don’t flip through it. But literature can help us develop empathy, and that is a mental skill we need in far more heads. I suspect that replacing a 12th grade physics class 98% of students forget with a literature class where you read a good book would do more to promote an enlightened society.

7 thoughts on “Should we scrap STEM in high school?

  1. I agree. High school should focus on the basic subjects and general concepts which adults really need. Instead school gets diverted into irrelevant facts and complex equations which 99% of kids will never use or remember, and which frankly many (most?) aren’t even capable of learning. This is a recipe for alienation and resentment and ill prepared adults.

    High school would be better focused on the foundations for most kids, with elective options for the details of plant biology, the periodic table and calculus.

  2. Two questions: Do current average student reading skills encourage this? Who would, in the increasingly politicized atmosphere, select the additional reading?

    • I hope (irrationally, I’m sure) that doing few things might help reading skills. But honestly, I think if you just replaced the 12th grade with the top 50 rated movies you’d get most of the benefits without the literacy. Of course that would surely lead to large groups of lunatics messing with those ratings, but nobody’s going to listen to me anyways so I’ll go ahead and be utopian.

      And I don’t think you even need as nasty an environment as we’ve currently got to have shitty parents insisting that books encouraging empathy be banned.

  3. I really long for the day when this is not a question of what “we” should do, but a question we expect each parent to answer for their own child. My family has found a charter school that focuses on the things I think are important given my kid’s personalities and proclivities, and I wish I wasn’t an exception but the rule.

  4. It’s interesting. I am from Europe so the curriculum in the high school was different. As a scientist, I am impressed by the number of STEM resources in the USA. At the same time, the huge amount of literature I had in my teen years helped me a lot. There wouldn’t be science without the philosophy of science. I am inspired to build a bridge between the different schools. Thanks.

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