Will Our STEM Obsession Squeeze Out Other Subjects?

Schools must prepare kids for careers of the future, but that's not all they should do.

Math class in Wellsville, N.Y. (Photo: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Jack Schneider writes the column 'The Learning Curve' for TakePart. He is an assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross and the author of two books, including From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education . His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, and USA Today.

The jobs of the future, we are often told, will be in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Yet K–12 schools are inadequately preparing today’s children for tomorrow’s workforce. As a result, we run the risk of economic stagnation.

This is a common storyline in American education, and it has been repeated with growing urgency over the past decade—placing the spotlight on STEM subjects and leaving the rest of the curriculum in the shadows. As a recent article in The Atlantic put it, only greater focus on STEM will sustain the nation’s “broad, economic strength.” According to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, improving STEM education is essential to efforts to “strengthen the caliber of the U.S. workforce, drive economic growth, and keep the U.S. competitive.”

There is truth in this. One reasonable projection, for instance, predicts faster growth in STEM-related jobs over the next two decades than in many other fields. Even if economic data indicate that rumors of American decline are greatly exaggerated, it is important to think about the demands of a 21st-century labor market.

But assuming STEM education would produce greater economic productivity, panicked policy rhetoric about a supposed crisis in K–12 education is myopic at best.

Schools should prepare students for their future occupations. Most of us can agree that education should prepare young people for their lives, and nearly all of them will spend roughly 40 years in the labor force. Additionally, today’s students are tomorrow’s taxpayers, and insofar as that is the case, we all stand to benefit from their successes. 

Yet it is also true that over the course of their lives students will spend a majority of their hours on pursuits other than work, even if we exclude the time-consuming activity of sleep. Human beings are many things—citizens and voters, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors. But they are not worker ants. Inasmuch as that is the case, we must remember that workforce preparation is only one of many educational aims. It may not even be the most important—either for the individual or for society.

Broadly speaking, schools should help young people realize their moral, intellectual, spiritual, artistic, and physical potential. That being the case, they should pursue a range of activities designed to cultivate a diverse set of aptitudes and strengths.  

STEM subjects, without question, have a place in the curriculum. But so do subjects such as art, music, literature, and history. When taught well, these subjects not only cover different kinds of content but also develop different modes of thought. They help us lead better lives. Recent research on the study of literature, for instance, indicates that reading novels may change our brains by making us more empathetic and more able to relate to others. Scholarship on the teaching of history is equally compelling—revealing that, among other benefits, studying the past tempers our tendency to oversimplify. And research on art and music education suggests that, as we might expect, those subjects foster sensitivity, personal expression, focus, and even psychological health.

When we talk only of economic competitiveness, it becomes difficult to make a case for these subjects. After all, not many people make a living reading Shakespeare or sculpting with clay. But this is a problem with our policy rhetoric more than it is a problem with what we teach. As such, the solution is not to narrow our aims but rather, to resist a constricted definition of what a good education does (especially, as I have argued elsewhere, when it comes to the education of poor children, who are the first to be deprived of liberal arts classes and enrichment activities).

Yes, we should do a better job of teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But it is foolish to believe that to do so we must squeeze out the rest of the curriculum. Instead, we should be striving to strengthen all aspects of the educational enterprise. Schools don’t train workers; they train people. 

The question, then, is not what kinds of jobs we want our schools to train children for. It is what kind of adults we want our children to become. Sure, more scientists and code writers would be great. But I’d take happy, literate, creative, and engaged people any day. Whatever their jobs are.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.

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