Shut up about STEM already.

Earlier this week I heard a discussion on our local public radio station about getting the most “bang for your buck” with a college degree. With two kids in undergrad and one in grad school, I know it’s an important topic of conversation for families. The cost of higher education is all but unattainable for way too many people. It makes sense to consider what you’re going to get in return for the ridiculous amount of money you have to put into it, and to consider how you’re going to manage the debt you’ll almost inevitably accrue by the time you graduate.

I knew whereof I speak. Our oldest chose an elite school and came out with $20,000 in debt (but is in a field in which this debt will be made manageable by her eventual salary). Our middle graduates this year with $10,000 in debt, having chosen to live at home for her four years to keep expenses down. Our youngest, as always, came out smelling like a rose and got a full ride to a state college. All three of our kids were National Merit Finalists, top 5% of their high school classes, and were awarded various academic/talent-based scholarships. And still two out of three of them had to incur serious debt in order to graduate.

So, back to that public radio discussion. As I say, the topic was reasonable. Where I ran into angst was with the advice I heard being given by some local “experts.” Which all boiled down to “If you want to get anywhere in life, go into a STEM field.” They said, in so many words, that “Computers are a good field to go into.  Analytics is a good field to go into. Math and engineering are good fields to go into.”

Granted, this was a show with the stated topic of “making money with your college degree.” But the very clear message was that the only reason to go to college was to make as much money as possible. It’s a theme that drums in our ears constantly – STEM currently rules the educational world. I even saw an ad on Facebook today for STEM play kits that can be mailed directly to your home, to feed into “Oh, dear God my child’s gonna be left behind!” hysteria.

I take exception to the idea that STEM is the be-all and end-all of education.

Not because I think poverty is a good life goal.

Rather, because fulfillment and joy are excellent life goals.

For those people who love numbers or research or engineering or writing code, pursuing a STEM degree is absolutely a good choice. But I think pushing a kid into a field of study solely because it will make them a pile of cash is a seriously rotten thing to do. I’ve seen it plenty of times. In our super-affluent suburb, money is the god most commonly worshiped. Working with families my entire adult life, I’ve witnessed repeatedly parents whose narrative to their kids is that making money is the number one priority.

What about instead encouraging kids to follow their passion? Or – radical thought – what if our society adequately rewarded the life-giving careers that involve the humanities?

Again, I know whereof I speak. Our oldest was fascinated by genetics and research from the time she was in middle school. She excelled at and was fascinated by the humanities, as well, but chose molecular biology as her life’s work. Our Middle was great at math and science. But her first love is languages and writing and teaching. She chose to become a high school teacher, and we cheered her on every step of the way. This world will be a better place because of her choice.

And our youngest? For the first half of his 21 years, he was certain he would become an aerospace engineer. He had the skills and the ability to do it. But then he fell in love with vocal music, and the rest was history. It was a shock to us as his parents to see him make that radical change, but we couldn’t be prouder of his achievements in music and can’t wait to see him take on his own choirs after he graduates next year – a vocal music education major with a minor in physics (in a nod to his first love).

Will our younger two make a mint in their careers? Obviously not, especially in this crappy state we call Kansas, where our legislature is doing its level best to destroy public education.

But all three of our kids are thrilled with what they’re doing with their lives.

And THAT is what’s really important.


8 thoughts on “Shut up about STEM already.

  1. I want to like this more than once! Ironically, I teach a stem subject, but there needs to be a joy in learning and that needs to come from a spectrum of subjects.
    Right now, the government here is reducing the curriculum in the name of improving grades whilst also cutting budgets.
    The correlation between pushing stem to the detriment of arts & student’s decline in mental health ought to be ringing alarm bells

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that’s a really good point I hadn’t even thought of – the link between pushing STEM and the teen mental health crisis. I think you’re onto something there. The pressure on high school kids (especially in this affluent suburb) is absolutely shocking – it’s fairly common now for high achievers to abuse ADHD meds in the hopes that they’ll help them concentrate and work harder/faster. I believe if we just allowed them to explore interests and study a wide range of subjects, the pressure would be significantly less – meaning better mental health.

      And I’ve loved reading your posts about your kids and the classes you teach. I’ve always thought the kids who have spent time with you in class are incredibly lucky. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ugh. I heard a radio broadcast out here like that – and it made me really frustrated. Not everyone is a science and technology person. Not every problem in this world that we need to deal with will be solved by science. For that, we will need to develop our reasoning and people skills. I was at a lunch for the parents of admitted students last year before my oldest started college. A mother at the table shared that she was a musician, but her family refused to pay for an education that culminated in a degree in the arts. They convinced her to pursue engineering. She did. She graduated and got a good job – and left it. She hated the field. She eventually found her way back to music. Several parents at our table nodded that they’d had similar experiences and they were all in agreement that their kids would pursue what interested them – not what they thought would earn them the most money. I wanted to hug them all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with every word you said. I’m afraid it’s typical of our education system to Get It Wrong. I have all the respect in the world for teachers, but at almost every turn the policy wonks and high level administrators manage to screw up in terms of how to make education work in this nation.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I absolutely agree with what you speak of STEM. Enough already. My kids’ elementary school is crazy over STEM. They asked my kids’ father to serve on the STEM advisory committee (his degree is in civil engineering), and even though he’s a “science” person, he’s pretty fed up with how they want to go about teaching it. He went to college on a musical/theatre scholarship, so he values creative thinking as much if not more than what most deem scientific thinking. His argument is that kids are naturally scientific and that the best scientists are often creative thinkers who ask a lot of questions. Anyway, I’ll spare you the details, but the program they’re trying to initiate is turning into a cluster-F#@K, for lack of a better way to put it. I, too, want my children to have some enthusiasm for their careers. Sounds like you’ve done a lot right with your three.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really appreciate that perspective. That’s a topic I left out of my post (it was long enough as it was!) – that without a good grounding in liberal arts and humanites, STEM field candidates are seriously shortchanged. Our daughter the biologist got where she is because she’s an excellent writer – if you want to publish, you have to be able to write. The converse is true, too – our son the choral conductor uses his expertise in science, especially physics, to analyze the sound coming from a choir – that helps him create the best placement for each voice. And our daughter the linguistics expert and English teacher uses statistics, datakeeping, and graphs to keep track of progress and needs, to serve each of her students as best she can. It’s totally ridiculous that we’re trying to force education to be only one or only the other.


  4. Ah yes, the STEM hysteria 😁 I really dislike the constant push towards it as well, I heard enough about it when I chose to study cultural anthropology rather than something more ‘serious’. Who knew you could find so much fulfillment in a ‘non-serious’ career 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you’re a brilliant example! The world would in an even worse place without people like cultural anthropologists helping us understand who people are and why our cultures do the things they do. Now if only we could get politicians and the military to pay attention to what you could teach them…

      Liked by 1 person

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