What I Worry About When I Worry About STEM

Are we training our future employees, or are we educating our present and future citizens?

My first year as a university tutor in archaeology, I had a student who was a retired engineer. A month into term, he complained that the course was too hard. He’d spent his whole life knowing — not believing, but knowing — that arts degrees were a joke. I thought he was saying that he was being unexpectedly challenged, but he was accusing me of making it harder because I didn’t want to admit it was society’s fluff.

The bias toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) as the subjects for more intelligent, or more productive people is nothing new. It’s easier to see that they instil skills that are useful to industry, and that makes perfect sense, but only if we think education is all about a direct path to employment.

We should encourage more young people into STEM, and do much more to demystify these subjects, but are we so worried about the economy that we’re willing to accept that education is simply a path to being an employee or entrepreneur?

Education’s fundamental purpose is to improve our capacity to question and develop our ability to build bridges (metaphorical and physical) between theories and applications. So why do we allow the discourse to focus on pushing people into STEM for the fulfilment of the needs of industry (even when we know the industry needs are more complex), especially when it’s sold back to us as a national mission to “beat” other countries at math?

Yes, STEM subjects can be more easily measured than capacity for literary theory. We can, and should, educate those who love how bridges or declarative programming languages work to become enthusiastic engineers and programmers. Yet, while geography can’t teach you how to make a bridge that stands up, theories of settlement and place-making can help you think more broadly and critically about the social and economic impact of where you build that bridge. Everyone should be asking “who, what, where, when, how, why?” but we all don’t have to drill down in the same places.

Lots of people in tech have taken circuitous pathways to get where they are (I sure did). For a lot of people, the work they do didn’t exist as a formal subject even a few years ago. So why, when we discuss even our own field, technology, as if it’s more than a nebulous term to describe an industry with no definable boundary, do we allow it to focus on engineers, industry, and hollow “innovation”? The industry moves so quickly and unpredictably that adaptability is the best skill you can have in the 21st century.

Building a business is a cycle of learning and failing. You need to know how to think critically. I don’t care if you got it from history, computer science, or agriculture, as long as you can be part of a team who can solve problems together. Not everyone in tech needs to code. And not everyone needs to be “in tech.”

If we rush to rearrange education to meet industry needs, we fail to engage our own critical thinking skills by thinking about the long-term impact. We allow the defunding of art, music, wood shop, and foreign languages, in favour of cramming forty kids into a math class where they’re hammered with rote learning. It’s easier to measure and hey, we can use these narrow, nationalistic Western metrics to “beat” China at test scores. Hooray for us. We have turned social work into a menial job and schools are hiring unpaid interns to teach our kids, but look how many of our citizens work at Google.

I write this as someone who cares about my industry — don’t defund music education or fire your French language teacher in my name. Teach kids (and adults) to code and to understand that there is more to the world than contemporary Western systems of thought.

I don’t think anyone who is realistic believes there should be no relationship whatsoever between education and industry. But why, if we talk big about innovation and education, are we allowing companies that might not be around in twenty years to have such a powerful voice?

Narrow thinking doesn’t even work from the operations end. A lot of what we learn about business practices comes from theories of economic and social dynamics. Just as we can stress the importance of learning the grammar of code, we can stress that the distilled ideas in lean methodologies and marketing white papers are not enough.

The roots of our understanding of human behaviour, including the sciences, the structures of language, and the rhetorical theories we use to sell products, don’t come from Silicon Valley, or Harvard, they come from Athens (and previously, further east). People need access to the tools that give rise to the approaches we use because challenging received wisdom is what creates real change.

By focusing on STEM subjects in isolation, or congratulating kids on studying engineering over elementary education, we are not only failing to challenge the idea that engineering is objectively harder, we are playing into the hands of a power structure that values industry more than humanity, and demands our complicity. We risk teaching them that good ideas come from technology and science, not where they really come from, which is everywhere. Encourage people (young and old) to delve into exciting tasks and problems, and we’ll have a healthy tech industry in a society that is constantly finding creative ways to work out the bugs.

Coding is hard. Math is hard. Teaching is hard. Building a business that makes money is hard. Meeting all those complex needs is hard. STEM can’t do it alone.

And the assumption that engineering is more valuable than the humanities is nothing new. Eventually, that first-year student became more willing to engage, and I was able to give him Bs on his essays instead of (frankly, generous) Ds. At the end of the year he told the department head I was a great teacher. I took this as fifty percent overcompensation for what a dick he’d been, and fifty percent an indication that he had figured out that he’d been wrong for forty years. The latter was more important.


Jane Ruffino is a recovering archaeologist and proud liberal arts graduate. She went from studying the relationship between humans and tech in the past, to trying to shape it in the present, as CMO for software startup GetBulb. GetBulb is a tool that gives Big Media infographics power to everyone.