It seems that in recent years, education in science and technology has been a massive trend in American schools. Going back to at least 2009, when President Obama introduced the 2010 "Educate to Innovate" initiative, the American educational system has heeded the call of what was then called "STEM" education. "STEM" or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math has been heralded as an absolute need in the K-12 world, as numerous studies show the U.S. lagging in performance in these fields when compared to their counterparts in countries like China, Korea, Japan, India, and Germany. These are countries that have strengthened their initiatives in STEM fields and produced many an engineer. Tech companies are hiring Indian staffers or relocating to India. Many of the students enrolled in STEM fields in American graduate schools are foreign students who will take those skills back to their home countries and put them to good use. Add to this that according to the 2005 National Academies report that the salary of one U.S. chemist would pay 5 Chinese chemists or 11 Indian chemists, and it looks like we have an issue. Add to that the fact that a 2006 Raytheon study of 1,000 students, aged 11-13, reveals that 84% "would rather clean their room, eat their vegetables, go to the dentist, or take out the trash than learn math or science," and one sees how we seem to have reached a crisis point. With all the data pointing to a decline in U.S. prowess in science and technology fields, it was time to sound the alarm and work on some serious educational initiatives. According to the Department of Computer Science at the University of Texas at Austin, between 2004 and 2014, STEM jobs grew by 11.4% compared with a growth rate of 4.5% in other areas. There is no denying the importance of education in these areas. However, it becomes interesting to note some of the evolution of America's focus on STEM education.
For starters, while "STEM" was the first acronym to represent education in this area, others have followed. "STEM" quickly became "STEAM," with the "A" standing in for "Art." After all, without the creativity and innovation the Arts lend to STEM fields, well-constructed buildings are aesthetically unappealing, and while your iPhone is a technological marvel, it is not the "pretty" device you have come to know and love. Then, there was a move to see "STEAM" become "STREAM," with the "R" standing in for "Religion." Surely, if we are looking at huge advances in the Sciences, there will be some intersection with ethics and morality, and thus with religion as well. We can clone a sheep, but should we? Would God want us to? For that matter, when I mention "God," I am speaking from a Judaeo-Christian perspective. While some faiths may suggest that cloning is immoral, others might embrace it. And then, what about those who do not embrace a faith tradition? The lack of a faith tradition is effectively a faith tradition of its own, and bears weight on advances that we make in science, technology, and the like. Religion is an interesting lens through which to view our advances in STEM fields. It's only a matter of time before we add another letter...but my guess, based on recent trajectory, is that it is going to represent another Humanities field, like both the "A" and the "R" have.
Maybe it is the fact that I was a Latin and Ancient Greek major who does not like the idea of his studies being declared useless as they didn't impact the development of a new vaccine or an advance in surgical technique. I had a roommate in college who didn't mind stressing to me that the work he was doing was more important than the dead people I was studying, and certainly more important than the languages those dead people spoke. However, I think there's more to it. I reflect on something I wrote in an earlier post: "Aristotle stresses the importance of seeking the “mean” or the “intermediate,” suggesting that this is where one finds virtue." I think we need to be sure that our approach to education is a balanced one. Sure, maybe the focus on STEM, STEAM, or STREAM was part of keeping that balance. However, I maintain that as sure as the pendulum swings one way, it will swing back in the other direction as well. Again, I think we've started to see it. The erstwhile 4-letter acronym that was pure Math and Science became a six-letter acronym, with one-third of its component letters representing the Liberal Arts.
As compelling as this philosophical view of the situation may be, there is actually compelling evidence to suggest that the Humanities remain vitally important. For starters, the focus on STEM and the promise of job growth in these areas has led to a massive increase in the number of students who pursue bachelor's or graduate degrees in these fields. However, while tech fields are growing, they are not growing as fast as the eligible workforce. According to a CNBC article, only about 50% of students graduating with a STEM degree find a job in the field. Does this mean that they are not finding any jobs? Surely not. Skills developed in STEM education are broadly applicable. All this suggests is that not everyone gets to be an astronaut. Even as the tech field continues to grow, some of the fields that lie tangent to it are growing faster as a result. According to a study by the Bay Area Council (the "Bay" being the San Francisco Bay, right next to Silicon Valley), for every new tech job in the Bay Area, 4.3 new jobs are created across other sectors. According to Forbes back in 2015:
"Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger. Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers–and make progress seem pleasant."
Forbes went on to point out:
"The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2022 some 1 million more Americans will enter the workforce as educators. Another 1.1 million newcomers will earn a living in sales. Such opportunities won’t be confined to remedial teaching or department store cashiers. Each wave of tech will create fresh demand for high-paid trainers, coaches, workshop leaders and salespeople. By contrast, software engineers’ ranks will grow by 279,500, or barely 3% of overall job growth."
Thus, the need for continued emphasis on the Humanities. Someone has to add the artistic touches to that iPad, and someone else will need to design the advertising campaign for it (English, Psychology, and Marketing majors), and someone else will need to train people how to use it (Education majors), and eventually, someone will have to document the history of its development (Journalism and History majors). Not to mention the fact that all of this will need to be done in a variety of different languages (Language majors), taking into account an even wider variety of social norms (Cultural Anthropology majors).
Again, I am a big advocate for advances in STEM, STEAM, and STREAM education. I think its enormously important for the U.S. to continue to develop in this area. I want to see cancer cured. I want to see cars burning less fuel. Speaking of pendulum swings, I'd like to see a smaller smartphone with all the capabilities of my current behemoth. The thrust of my argument is simple; we cannot afford to dismiss the study of the humanities as being insignificant. We cannot afford to tell our children that they shouldn't be English majors because there are no jobs in that field. For that matter, there's a world of things one can do with an English degree other than teach English or go to law school. In fact, that English degree goes hand in hand with the STEM world; it will be the English major who puts words around what the Engineering major has created.
Maybe there's even hope for us Latin majors!
The Regis School of the Sacred Heart strives to utilize technology throughout our academic curriculum, helping students develop their STEM skills in every subject.