Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When Democracy Suffers

I'm weary of hearing about "STEM," the popular acronym for "science, technology, engineering, and math." I'd be shocked if anyone reading here isn't aware of it being tossed around. Indeed, many of us have picked it up and held it high, declaring that play-based education is the perfect preparation for a career in STEM. Some of us have gotten clever and begun talking about STEAM education, tossing in "art" by way of expanding the notion, but it's a poor fit because "art" is not a career path the way the others are.

We're right, of course. When children play, they are scientists: exploring, discovering, hypothesizing, experimenting, concluding. When children play they are using the technology at hand, solving engineering problems, and engaging in the sorting, organizing, and categorizing that forms the foundations of mathematics. All of that is true.

My objection is that all this talk about STEM is just the latest way to keep our schools focused exclusively on vocational training, to prepare our children for those mythological "jobs of tomorrow," jobs that may exist today, but are unlikely to exist two decades from now when our preschoolers are seeking to enter the job market. It's a scam as old as public education, an idea that emerged from the Industrial Revolution because back then the "jobs of tomorrow" were stations along an assembly-line, where rote and repetition were king, so we made schools to prepare the next generation for that grim life. Today, those "jobs of tomorrow" are in cubicles, pushing buttons on computers, vocations that are equally prone to rote and repetition and equally likely to not exist in the future.

Most of the jobs my daughter will be applying for in the coming years didn't exist when she was in preschool. If I'd pursued the careers my guidance counselors recommended in high school, I'd be unemployed today. Anyone who claims to know the specific skills required for the jobs of tomorrow is just blowing smoke. They are wrong and they have always been wrong. Those jobs of tomorrow, as is true in every generation, will instead be largely invented by the generation that fills them.

I did not enter the teaching game to prepare young children for their role in the economy and if vocational training is the primary function of schools, then I'd say we ought to just shut them all down and let the corporations train their own damn workers. No, the purpose of education in a democracy ought to be to prepare children for their role as citizens and that means that they learn to think for themselves, that they ask a lot of questions, that they question authority, that they stand up for what they believe in, and that they understand that their contribution to the world cannot be measured in money. The project of self-governance requires educated citizens, people who are self-motivated, who are sociable, and who work well with others. That is why I teach.

I'm married to the CEO of a technology company. She didn't study STEM in school. In fact, she admits to having steered clear of those classes, opting instead for a broad liberal arts education, one in which she pursued her passion for learning languages. Today, people invite her, as a one of those rare unicorns, "a woman in STEM," to speak with young people about her career. She is rarely invited back because she doesn't tell the kids what their teachers want them to hear. Instead, she tells them the truth, which is that her success is based on being self-motivated, being sociable, and working well with others.

Being able to earn a living is important and none of this is to say that children ought not pursue their STEM interests whether they lead to a career or not. But these things cannot stand at the center of education and when they do, democracy suffers.

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