AAC&U News: April 2015
Perspectives

Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education Is Dangerous

Fareed Zakaria, The Washington Post, March 26

If there’s one thing commentators of every political persuasion agree on these days, it’s that our educational system needs to focus more on science and technical skills—in this time of rapid technological change and emerging economic competition around the world, they agree that higher education can’t afford to indulge students with the arts and humanities. A ruthless focus on the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) “is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans thrive,” says Fareed Zakaria.  But while these challenges are very real, a narrower educational system focused on the STEM fields is the wrong solution. “Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want,” Zakaria says. “The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate.”

In fact, our most successful technology companies are concrete demonstrations of the value of an education that offers a broad grounding in the arts and humanities and emphasizes critical and creative thinking. Consider Mark Zuckerberg, who was majoring in psychology when he began working on the program that became Facebook, a company that fundamentally changed the way people use the Internet. Zuckerberg has said that Facebook’s continuing development is informed as much by psychology and sociology as it is by programming. And as the late Steve Job’s put it, “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Why should we move to imitate the technical education programs popular in many East Asian countries, Zakaria asks, when some of those very countries are moving to the liberal arts model that has served American students so well? Political and educational leaders in those countries realize that technical skills alone are insufficient. In the past, a tech company could succeed just by manufacturing products, but that’s no longer enough, Zakaria says. “Now they have to be on the cutting edge of design, marketing and social networking…. All of this requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum. Critical thinking is, in the end, the only way to protect American jobs.”

Read the full op-ed at the Washington Post.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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