STEM and the "Liberal Education"

Newton's third law tells us that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Popular opinion journalism is not so different than physics after all.

I read Fareed Zakaria's work often. He's a great journalist for the Washington Post and a TV news anchor with his own show on CNN. I dug into a piece yesterday he wrote titled "Why America's Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous". Unlike Zakaria's articles on foreign policy, which are insightful, thought-provoking, and in-depth, this article paints an innacurate and overly-simplified picture of what STEM education is and should be. Worse yet, his argument injects dangerously reductive rhetoric into the public debate on education, where we already see heightened emotion and political division. Maybe this type of reaction is what Zakaria is aiming for. He releases a new book today on this same topic called "In Defense of a Liberal Education".

This article centers on a false dichotomy, namely that that focusing more on STEM education opposes or undermines a "liberal education". As a STEM educator and advocate, I know that Zakaria's claim simply is not true. I hope that casual readers will dig deeper and resist blindly following this type of click-bait journalism (The URL for the article shows a different, working title for his piece: "Why STEM won't make us successful"). I hope to address some misconceptions here and provide a richer description of what STEM education is, what it can be, and why we should all support a focus on it at every school.

Zakaria appears to be confused from the very first sentence of his article. STEM education does not mean trade school. Specific skills-based classes are a small (and I would argue tangential) part of what educators mean when they advocate for strong STEM education. STEM is a collection of disciplines that are very much focused on helping students develop skills of logic and creativity, mathematical analysis and modeling, scientific inquiry, and computational thinking. The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) takes great care in their K-12 Computer Science Standards to distinguish between the study of computer science and the use of technology career-specific skills. While some students might be narrowly focused on learning to use specific tools and skills, the study of "computer science is concerned with learning how these tools are designed and why they work". They continue, describing that just like learning to paint or play an instrument, a small amount of time studying computer science can profoundly impact the way students analyze the world around them in the future, regardless of their career choice. I believe this wholeheartedly and it's one reason why I think every student should study computer science before they graduate high school.

A quick glance at the Standards for Mathematical Practice or the Science and Engineering Practices makes Zakaria's claim look even more incomplete – STEM education is clearly "broad-based". Math education advocates don't want to just teach students rote skills and procedures, they want to develop the habit of thinking mathematically so that students can make sense of the world around them in novel ways. Science teachers are not working just to impart a list of facts or ideas to students so that they can regurgitate them in their career. They seek to develop scientific habits of mind through exploring content. Some might dismiss these distinctions as just semantics, but they're emblematic of a well-accepted paradigm for STEM education that is very different than the one that Zakaria portrays. This paradigm may be somewhat new to the public, but it is one that is rooted in a large body of historical work from educators, thought leaders, and researchers. Anyone claiming that STEM education is primarily about "pushing towards the teaching of specific, technical skills" is simply unaware of the prevalent beliefs of educators leaders and teachers.

Zakaria presents increased STEM education as a zero-sum tradeoff with the humanities. This is simply not true.

I am headed home today after spending the weekend with 30 amazing teachers at a meeting put on by the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF). On Friday, we spent an hour working together mapping out how the practices and habits of STEM disciplines relate to the recently released "capacities" of successful language arts students. This kind of cross-disciplinary work is why I'm confident that stronger STEM education won't destroy the humanities. Math, science, language arts, philosophy, art, and music are not disjoint disciplines that can only be learned in isolation. A deeper understanding of mathematics and logical thinking clearly enables students to deeply appreciate philosophy. Likewise, creativity honed in fine arts classes enables students to be better problem solvers in computer science class. Zakaria says that America has historically stayed innovative by leveraging "creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook". These are the same traits I hope my students have when they leave each of my classes. This is what Zakaria doesn't seem to understand: STEM educators fully support supporting students to experience a well-rounded education.

Zakaria cites schools and politicians that have plans to cut classes or programs to make more time for students to study STEM fields. These are unfortunate losses, but hard choices about a fixed resource like time will always exist and should be made by individual schools and communities. Zakaria presents increased STEM education as a zero-sum tradeoff with the humanities. This is simply not true. More time spent on STEM does not mean less time emphasizing critical thinking or creativity. Nor does it mean only a narrow, career-based or skills-based education. I push for STEM not because I want or expect every student to become an engineer, but because I would be doing my students a disservice by not helping them be to critical consumers and even producers of technology. That technology is undeniably part of the "human condition" that Zakaria refers to.

Anyone claiming that STEM education is primarily about "pushing towards the teaching of specific, technical skills" is simply unaware of the prevalent beliefs of educators leaders and teachers.

As with all reform, the pendulum of change often swings too far to one extreme. Zakaria is right in calling for caution and thoughtfulness as we move towards stronger STEM education. However, by neglecting to acknowledge the richness of these disciplines and by creating false dichotomies, he is unintentionally pushing the pendulum too far the other way. Newton's third law tells us that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Popular opinion journalism is not so different than physics after all.

I'm probably going to read Zakari's book. You should too. I hope to learn more about what Zakari views as a "liberal education" and why he seems to think that emphasizing STEM education is not consistent with that vision. I'm passionate in my response here because I respect Zakari and feel that we align philosophically more than he realizes. It seems that Zakari is really arguing against today's most extreme technocrats, those who view public education as an institution that should be measureably and inextricably linked to industry. By not making this distinction between extreme technocrats and STEM educators like myself, Zakari has confused and frustrated many potential allies. STEM education means many different things to many people, but I believe firmly that it should complement and push our notion of a liberal education. So do many of my colleagues across the country. Come see for yourself, our classrooms are always open.

A special thanks to Tim Ellis, who was a thought partner in writing this article.

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