Monday, April 7, 2014

STEMing the tide, part II

Our country is hurting when it comes to domestically trained first-rate science talent.  Our educational system is dropping the ball in many very well-documented ways.  K-12 is processing students who are poorly trained in basic reading and writing skills, as well as in numeracy and synthetic or analytic thinking, but who then go on to college or university.

When we get them, too many are not ready for serious level college work.  But we, too, at least big universities, have a business-model-based pass-through behavior and we give diplomas to a lot who probably cannot spell 'diploma' (much less 'sheepskins').  We know we are doing this, but are too cowed by budgetary fears to do our duty and address the problem.  Indeed, big money is being disproportionately invested in fancy rec buildings and well-appointed dormitories to attract students, over ways to improve education, which won't.

These are not secrets.  In some realms, such as what are known as STEM areas, basically science and technology, that have important commercial and other important roles in our society, there is a widely reported serious shortage of skills and knowledge, at least in students trained here.

We live in a highly technological society, for good or ill, and this is important.  But our country is so money-oriented and materialistic, short-sighted and soaked in a business ideology, that the stress on the genuine need to upgrade our STEM training is systematically squeezing out other subjects, such as language, history, society, the humanities, and arts.

The lack of value given to these non-monetary-related subjects is not even a new problem, as we recently wrote.   Our society simply hasn't got the ability to put limits on short-term material interests. This, even though understandably, with a very democratic, open-to-all system, which is likely a very good and enviable thing, we cannot expect every student to be a Darwin or Einstein, or even to give a damn about becoming an 'educated' person.  Most, naturally, want a job (and, before that, a few years of debauchery).

We have taught science, real science as best we understand it, for decades, and certainly know that better STEM-subject background would substantially improve what and how most students think.  The best are terrific, and while not everyone can be the best, they can be better.  Science can be taught in its context and students exposed to diverse subject areas, and subject types, can generally, and perhaps especially for the brightest, become more innovative and creative citizens.

But synthetic and integrative thinking, as manifest by many or perhaps even most of the very best scientists, is a hallmark of real creativity.  Science papers that hide a lack of substance beneath layers of impressive STEMming are, to us, quite rife and a costly societal problem, as we often write.

But, even in the US, there is more to life than one's job, something the 'Protestant ethic' too often leaves behind.  And, at the end, thoughtful people who are very successful at STEM, often reflect that they've paid a price--missed opportunities for edification, that cannot be reclaimed.  We have one life, and we should treat it as a precious gift not to be needlessly restricted.

Here is how one Charles Darwin (no fan of universities) put it, in his autobiography:
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Our country is hurting, yes, but it's not just because not everyone can do calculus.  It's because too many are seeing too little, too late,  of the world they're going to rent for a while.

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