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Fareed Zakaria warns that fears about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are greatly overblown.
Zakaria comes close to acknowledging that the “crisis” rhetoric of so-called reformers is a myth,or as Berliner and Biddle called it years ago, “a manufactured crisis.”
The demand fo expand STEM is often accompanied by disdain for liberal education, writes Zakaria:
“If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities. From President Obama on down, public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today’s world. Republicans want to go several steps further and defund these kinds of majors. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” asked Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott. “I don’t think so.” America’s last bipartisan cause is this: A liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward. It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition. The stakes could not be higher.”
But, he writes, to de-emphasize the humanities would be a huge mistake:
“This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. 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. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “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.”
Zakaria then makes a point I have made again and again to those who lament international test scores:
“In truth, though, the United States has never done well on international tests, and they are not good predictors of our national success. Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math. And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.”
Sweden and Israel have poor scores on the same tests, yet are high on investment, entrepreneurship, and innovation. There are characteristics that are more important than test scores:
“They are flexible. Their work cultures are non-hierarchical and merit-based. All operate like young countries, with energy and dynamism. All three are open societies, happy to let in the world’s ideas, goods and services. And people in all three nations are confident — a characteristic that can be measured.”
The defining characteristic if a successful society, he concludes, is its ability to hone creativity and critical thinking skills. And for that, both the sciences and liberal arts are necessary.