A teaser blurb atop the 29 March Washington Post front page trumpeted a contrarian take on a cultural topic: “Too much science and math? Rethinking the obsession with STEM education.” The blurb pointed to the Sunday Outlook section, where that front page announced, “We can’t all be MATH NERDS & SCIENCE GEEKS.”
To frame and illustrate that Outlook headline, an artist replicated a page imagined from a student’s spiral notebook containing graph paper. The hand-drawn headline used science-invoking letter replacements like the Greek letter delta for the a in math. Doodled equations and trigonometric expressions surrounded the words. The subhead amplified the cold take on science, technology, engineering, and math: “Our obsession with STEM education will make it harder for America to innovate, writes Fareed Zakaria.” Online, the commentary’s headline warned, “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous.”
Zakaria hosts a CNN talk show and writes a weekly Post column. In January he new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education (W. W. Norton, 2015). A lengthy online excerpt shows that the commentary echoes the book, which was released the next day.
The commentary begins, “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.” It asserts that liberal education has come to be seen as “irrelevant” and that “technical training is the new path forward.” Based on this presumed equivalence of STEM education and technical training, it deplores what Zakaria calls a “dismissal of broad-based learning.”
Zakaria looks back historically, contrasting what he calls the “unique” US tradition of “well-rounded education” with other, narrower traditions in Europe and India. He focuses on how “America overcomes its disadvantage—a less-technically-trained workforce—with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook.” He insinuates that emphasizing STEM somehow means overemphasizing “memorization and test-taking.” He proposes that “no matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write”—as if study of STEM subjects doesn’t inculcate those abilities.
He offers the example of “America’s vast entertainment industry, built around stories, songs, design and creativity.” It “requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum,” he asserts, as if anybody is calling for that narrowness—and as if advances in the entertainment industry seldom tie to technological advances. He announces, “Critical thinking is, in the end, the only way to protect American jobs,” apparently without recognizing that science, technology, engineering, and math not only operate on critical thinking, but relentlessly demand it of students.
Zakaria’s commentary had been republished or discussed in a few places on paper and in several places online, including in Norfolk, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Tucson, and New Orleans and at Bloomberg View. Most of the coverage has been neutral, but the commentary drew sharp criticism in a new online column at the business site Forbes.com from the physicist Chad Orzel, a Union College professor, the author of three science popularizations, and a veteran blogger. He writes, “I bristle a bit when people talk as if science is something separate from ‘the human condition.’” He cautions:
It’s critical to remember that liberal education includes science. Calling for more students to study STEM subjects, and for scientists and educators to do a better job of teaching STEM subjects, is no threat to that idea. If anything, better and broader STEM education will deepen our understanding of “the human condition.”
None of this is new, of course. A half century ago, just for one example, a Physics Today article about physics in West Germany (recently engaged in the Physics Today blog The Dayside) ended with this desideratum: “It is essential . . . that Europe overcome its prejudice toward specialization and learn to regard the humanities and the sciences as peers.” What’s not clear is whether Zakaria advocates a peer relationship or a subordinate one for STEM and the rest of the curriculum.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.