Why The Future Isn’t STEM Education

STEM education is all the rage these days. For the last ten years, the government has been incentivizing and promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) courses in every school in America. It’s a good thing too, but maybe for the wrong reasons.

While it’s true that STEM professionals are the backbone of any company, they’re not everything. People still care about the design, aesthetics, and communication elements of products. Ask any kid wearing Nike shoes. It’s all about the fashion, despite the billions of dollars spent on the technical aspects of the shoe.

The problem is that STEM zealots seem to undermine careers rooted in the arts. However, when it’s convenient and fits the acronym, they’ll include it. So now we have STEAM (throw in Arts) and STEAMED (throw in entrepreneurship and design).

For the longest time in academics it was the sciences versus the arts. Now it’s STEM versus the entire curriculum. Some budgets show that sometimes STEM funding takes away from state-required courses like foreign language and writing. It’s ridiculous. Everyone knows that humanities courses like writing are important too. However, no nifty acronym could be spelled with it so they’ll had to throw it out.

Don’t get me wrong. I love STEM education. I built my career on it and I was the state representative for vocational careers, Career and Technical Education (the mother of STEM). It was my job to promote STEM and its ilk to schools and universities across the state. I did that proudly and felt good about what I was doing. Many of these students learned of numerous vocational opportunities and earned enough college credits from the state to save them thousands of dollars in tuition.

However, during my teaching years, I also owned a design studio. I created art and marketing materials for people. Most of what I did wasn’t STEM related at all.

I do believe that STEM careers should be promoted in schools, but for the right reason: educational diversity. Students should have a wide variety of courses to dabble in. Exposure to many different things at an early age is a crucial element to find one’s applied skills, passions, and “true calling” (which is what vocation literally means).

My experience with non-STEM courses is a good example. When I was growing up, I was crazy about music. If it wasn’t for music, I would have probably dropped out of school. It didn’t become a profession, but it was a key part of my education. Music helps the artist in me think better. As wonderful as STEM is, it’s not everything and most certainly not the future of our economy as people say it is.

STEM education is not the future because that’s a generic statement. Since all STEM careers are a key part of innovation, of course there is a general future for them. The future implies improvement and evolution, there will be a need for technology and science. That requires STEM professionals. But that’s like saying reading is the future. If we are to evolve and grow, then that’s true too.

STEM is a key component of the future, but so are a lot of things. The key argument for stakeholders in this discussion is that the focus should be on pushing STEM programs. Since reading is the mother of all knowledge, shouldn’t that be the focus? If we’re going to be imprecise about the future of education, we should champion the standard liberal arts curriculum.

Behind all the STEM rhetoric, we must realize what a career is. A viable career is the fusion of three essential things: passion, skills, and market. The first two most young people get, but what’s often missed is the latter. If there’s no market demand for what you’re doing, you’re sunk.

So here’s the big question. If education stakeholders are predicting the future and saying STEM careers are gold, are they making a decision for the future worker or the future economy? It would be nice if it were both, but it’s not. When you tell everyone to jump on the STEM bandwagon, you’re denying other viable non-STEM professions that just might make an individual happier and more fulfilled.

This scenario explains one reason how STEM education is positioned unfavorably. For many, STEM will be a vital dimension to a non-STEM profession. The two must fuse, but it’s completely acceptable for a liberal arts skill to dominate. And it’s unethical to tell people to not major in French because there are more jobs in manufacturing.

One of the great failures of higher education institutions is having a variety of subjects to major in, but not stressing where their craft can be used to secure employment. Why can’t students be highly encouraged to add international business as a double-major or minor as well? That solves everything for the individual and our future economy. Plus, it sets up the student to experience industry leadership and diplomacy. This is where massive exposure to numerous educational experiences and professions is vital when you’re young or transitioning between careers.

This dilemma is a great argument for supporting our dying liberal arts curriculum. In liberal arts institutions, one goal is to help people specialize in any profession. The other goal is to promote a well-rounded intellect. It makes sense that a physicist should also know a lot about creativity and imagination (to borrow Einstein’s sentiment). Also, taking history, psychology, philosophy courses are very important for any profession.

Regarding philosophy, if this topic is dismissed as a scholar, sometimes ethics go right out the door. Imagine if all finance majors were required to pass two philosophy courses in applied ethics. How different would Wall Street be today? Though these courses have nothing to do with STEM, they matter. As Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria writes, for the jobs of the future “[y]ou could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.”

So while I’m in praise of STEM and a liberal arts education, people should consider how the two work together in forging an in-demand career. But STEM isn’t the future of education, what is?

The future of education is institutional, corporate, and entrepreneurial leadership.

Like philosophy or writing, most people don’t major in leadership. It’s something you apply to whatever you do. It takes in the essential components of communication, organization, operation, persuasion, and ethics among other things. Leadership is the finishing school after you’ve mastered the basics of your craft. It needs to be emphasized in every discipline.

Leadership is important because the workforce that can create in-demand value will thrive in the future. That can come in any form. The nations that will be the most prosperous understand and control these industries. Whether those in control are Americans or any other nationality is up to debate and preference. But institutional, corporate, and entrepreneurial leadership is the future. Americans can either sustain this legacy, or focus on low-skilled jobs that will eventually be outsourced.

The world is full of workers willing to work for any company for the lowest amount possible. Third-world companies are often grateful for this, even though factory sustainability practices are completely in question. And of course, that is why many U.S. companies outsource. It’s simply cheaper to outsource. For a fraction of an American salary, I’ve seen companies outsource engineering jobs to foreign workers with PhD’s and Master’s degrees. Now that the world is flat again, people use that to their advantage.

Looking at business microcosmically, running a business has risks and challenges of its own. Beyond Porter’s five industry forces (rivals, buyers, suppliers, substitutes, and new entrants) there are plenty more obstacles to overcome. This takes a special business skill set to survive and compete with others. It requires strong leadership, management, and an army of skilled workers. STEM education highly promotes the latter. But of these three, who has the greatest advantage?

I never tell people what they should do with their lives. For the most part, I just candidly start talking about passion, skills, and markets. We talk about being exposed to potential careers. Ultimately, I can’t decide for people: it’s no place for me to say. And I certainly won’t tell them “do any career in technology or medicine”. That seems to be the guidance counselor’s go-to advice: Pursue any one of the millions of jobs that are in STEM fields. That’s just terrible advice. And because of that advice, think of all the countless masterpieces we missed out on.

Worse yet, maybe an individual missed out on being truly happy because he or she took the conservative path to their livelihood. That thought crushes me so I finally feel compelled to give general advice.

The best advice about the future is to know yourself, know how you can add value to the world, and know how to lead people.

That happens in both the STEM and non-STEM world. The real journey is figuring out how we as individuals can play a leading role in that story.

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