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.

ICE as Education Planners

Yale recently reclassified economics as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and other schools may follow suit. It’s a public-spirited regulatory arbitrage–by reclassifying to “Econometric and Quantitative Economics” they make it easier for international students to continue working in the U.S. after graduation. But by capitulating to regulatory nonsense, they’re sacrificing the long-run vitality of the field.

Here’s how this whole classification thing works: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a “STEM Designated Degree Program List” that specifies which programs on the Department of Education’s list of degree programs qualify as STEM. Students with degrees in these fields get special status as far as immigration. ICE’s list includes (among others) several psychology programs and three social science programs: Archaeology; Cyber/Computer Forensics and Counterterrorism; and Econometrics and Quantitative Economics.

What can we infer from this? That the feds are defining STEM narrowly, with a greater emphasis on engineering than science. STEM is about training people to do science-y work with practical applications. Basic research gets lip service, but only really matters so far as it’s likely to have clear applications in the future.

Economics has some parts that fit into such a view of STEM. Even I’ll admit (controversially for Austrians and Anarcho-Capitalists) that positive-sum social engineering a) is possible (in modest increments), and b) has something to learn from economics. But to include all of econ in STEM would require using a broader definition of STEM.

So what’s the upshot? High profile departments will focus more on a narrower part of economics pushing much of the field to the periphery. This is a retreat into more isolated academic silos. “Economics, general” leaves a vague space around a department, but taking a more specific designation means they can be held to more specific expectations. It might have little impact on the day-to-day life of a department, but in the long run they’re hamstringing themselves.

The problem these departments are trying to address is that ICE has too much power. But by playing this game they’re letting ICE play central planner in the education industry!

From the Comments: Organizational Ecology, François Nielsen, and the Lack of Diversity in Higher Education

Jacques elaborates on my observations about the lack of diversity in the social sciences and humanities:

One small comment. You said “left wing thought.” It was true when I began my career in the 70s. I have seen the “thought” part perish in my lifetime. They are now simply a bastion of leftism with almost no thought at all but just tedious repetitiousness. Thought does not normally flourish in the midst of consensus. My friend Dr François Nielsen at U of North Carolina wrote some vigorous things on the subject. (He was trained in the same program as Dr Amburgey and myself.)

I asked Jacques for some sources, and he provided a couple (a pdf here and a short video here). The “same program” Jacques is writing of was Stanford’s sociology department back in the late 60s and early 70s, when Organizational Ecology was prominent (I’ll leave it up to Delacroix and Amburgey to elaborate on the details).

Speaking of diversity, Amburgey disagrees with Delacroix’s (and my) assessment. He thinks the lack of diversity has to do with the rise of STEM. The entire ‘comments’ thread is well worth reading through.