From time to time in these pages, I’ve scoffed at the idea that American students need to focus more on STEM. It’s time I tackled this topic head-on.
Perhaps I don’t even need to establish that there’s a huge push in this country for more students to pursue STEM. I hear it constantly: from my neighbors, from politicians, from fellow parents, from my employer, and from the mass media. But just to substantiate the prevalence of this idea, here are some glib quotes from our nation’s leaders:
- “One of the things that I’ve been focused on as President is how we create an all-hands-on-deck approach to science, technology, engineering, and math… We need to make this a priority.” –President Barack Obama
- “This bipartisan [Building Blocks of STEM] legislation will help ensure that our children are prepared with the education necessary to succeed in a 21st-century economy.” –Senator Jacky Rosen
- “There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors. There just will … All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.” –Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin
- “In order to be competitive internationally, we must focus on creating successful schools with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” –Senator Mark Kirk
- “Our [higher education system] is outdated [and] doesn’t teach 21st century skills … The market for Greek philosophers is tight.” –Senator Marco Rubio
- “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs … Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” –Florida Governor Rick Scott
The flaw in this STEM-or-else idea is that it simply isn’t substantiated historically. For most of its history, America has seen most of its people gainfully employed, and only a minority have worked in tech. According to this analysis by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1996 just under 10% of US employment was in high-tech industries. Twenty years later, in 2016, the percentage of tech jobs was—guess what?—still about 10%. The BLS’s projection for the tech sector’s percentage of jobs in 2026? Wait for it … about 10%. Sure, there are spectacular instances of people making a killing in this realm, but that’s not the same thing as a new status quo. Meanwhile, plenty of people work in tech who don’t have STEM degrees. (More on this later.)
So where are these politicians getting their information? Probably from one another. Or maybe it’s their perception of what the voters are thinking, and they’re simply pandering. Who knows. The only thing that’s obvious to me is a serious lack of skepticism about STEM’s applicability to the majority of our students.
The earnings myth
A prevalent idea in my community is that unless our kids study STEM and get the kickass tech jobs, they won’t be able to afford to live here. True, real estate is famously expensive in the Bay Area, but I object to this chicken-little thinking. For one thing, my neighbors aren’t all (or even mostly) STEM types themselves, yet they do manage to afford their mortgages. And when it comes to their kids, they seem to automatically accept the widespread belief that STEM fields actually assure higher earnings. In fact they don’t.
I’m basing this bold statement on real data you can see for yourself here. This website enables you to see earnings over time across a huge spectrum of college majors. You don’t just see the median income, but how the income range varies according to how well the worker is doing in his or her field.
At first glance, the graphs generated by this website do support the idea that STEM fields pay better. Here’s how all the majors play out over time:
Zoom in. You’ll see that Chemical Engineering clearly pays better than any of the other majors; the lack of a college degree brings up the rear in earnings; and the lowest-earning college degree (the grey line) is Theology. When we use the handy-dandy filtering feature to look at just two majors, we see an apparently similar story:
I picked Computer Science because it seems to be the darling of STEM proponents, and I chose English because it’s what I studied in college. It’s plain to see that on average, the middle-of-the-road (50th percentile) Comp Sci grad does earn more: $3.3 million over his or her career, vs. the roughly $2.5 million an English grad would earn. But this comparison assumes that all humans are equally good at everything, which is patently false. Ask yourself: are you equally good at analyzing literature and programming a computer? Is your appreciation of fine art equal to your math ability? It seems obvious that when choosing a major, a person should factor in his or her interests and capabilities.
That’s where the graphs get very interesting. Let’s say you’re a bookish type and consider yourself smarter than the average bear at appreciating a work of literature. And let’s say you struggle just a bit with math. Should you still pursue STEM? Well, let’s ask the question this way: how much better would you have to be at English to break even on this presumably less lucrative choice of major?
The answer would probably surprise the STEMsters. An English lit major at the 70th percentile will make, on average, $3.1 million over his or her career, which is more than the slightly-below-par Computer Science major; at the 40th percentile, the Comp Sci major makes only $3 million. In other words, if liberal arts are your thing, sticking with them will make you more money than working your ass off trying to fake it in STEM.
Consider now that for the example above, I cherry-picked one of the most lucrative STEM majors. Consider the spread when we compare English to Chemistry:
In this case, you only have to be slightly better than average—55th percentile—in English to make more money than a somewhat substandard—40th percentile—Chem major. (The former would make $2.61 million over his or her career; the latter, $2.58 million.) Comparing English to Biology, the gap is even smaller: you’d only have to be at 55th percentile for English to make more than a 50th-percentile Bio major. To reiterate: the STEM fields are only more lucrative to those who are particularly suited to them.
(I was turned on to this website by this slide deck, put together by the UC Santa Barbara Associate Vice Chancellor, who is also a math professor, to promote liberal arts. This same data set is cited by The New York Times in this article, which declares it a myth that “for the big money, STEM always delivers.”)
Now, the STEM-pushers might naturally reply, “Great, fine, those who manage to find work in non-STEM fields do okay. But all the modern jobs are in tech! Do you want to work as a barista because your liberal arts degree didn’t equip you for the modern workforce?”
The short answer is what I already showed: tech doesn’t actually employ more of the workforce than it did twenty years ago, and that’s not expected to change. The long answer, meanwhile, looks even worse for STEM. When we compare the number of STEM jobs available to the number of students majoring in STEM subjects, we discover a frightening gap. To put it bluntly, the widespread promotion of STEM has already produced a glut of majors in those subjects. Check out this article in The New York Times, and particularly the graph at the top. It shows that there were 169,000 Engineering degrees (undergrad & graduate) awarded in 2015-2016, while that field only expects 51,000 job openings for 2014 through 2024. Life Sciences is even worse, with 183,000 degrees awarded and only 12,000 openings for those grads. Math isn’t much better, with 7,000 jobs forecast and 33,000 degrees awarded.
With this in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that studying STEM doesn’t guarantee getting a STEM-related job. Far from it, in fact. “Unemployment rates for STEM majors may be low,” the Times article states, “but not all of those with undergraduate degrees end up in their field of study — only 13 percent in life sciences and 17 percent in physical sciences, according to a 2013 National Science Foundation survey. Computer Science is the only STEM field where more than half of graduates are employed in their field.”
According to an expert quoted in the Times article, STEM advocates are “often executives and lobbyists for technology companies,” which makes sense. I can’t blame a tech company for wanting to have more graduates to choose from, and for wanting the best and brightest of our youth to be added to that pool. But this doesn’t mean America’s tech companies have room for all these people, and they certainly feel no responsibility to hire all of them. So who’s looking out for all the STEM grads whose résumés end up in the recycling?
The biggest myth
I hope I’ve helped you realize that a) studying STEM doesn’t necessarily lead to greater income, and 2) studying STEM doesn’t increase the likelihood of finding a job. But those are the easier cases to make. I have a more fundamental bone to pick: even if STEM were more lucrative and reliable, that doesn’t mean we should push it on our kids. To me, the greatest myth of all is an implicit one: that job security and income are the most important factors in a person’s happiness.
I won’t deny that job stability and wealth are great things to have. Frankly, I love money, and I’d be thrilled if I could relax a bit more about my own job security. But I naturally bristle at the pressure our kids are getting—from their peers, their parents, pundits, and the media—to pursue STEM regardless of their natural inclinations. The FUD being sowed here really bothers me, when you consider how hard it already is to be a teenager. I’m also irked by the idea that we parents know what’s best for our youth, when most of us—raised in the “Me Generation” of the ‘70s, with an abundance of laissez-faire parents—got to chart our own course, and most of us are doing just fine.
I think the external pressure put on our kids is inherently malignant. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to do as they please? Parents are saying, “Follow this path” instead of “Find your own path,” and I take this as a vote of no-confidence.
“Be realistic,” the STEMist might say. “All this follow-your-dream ideology just isn’t practical.” I beg to differ. How practical is it to add extra stress to a teenager’s life by saying “You’d better do X-Y-Z or you’ll never be able to afford to [live here] [buy a home] [have a family] [pay off your loans] [be financially secure]”? Consider how rampant mental health issues are across our society: according to this article, more than 44 million American adults (almost one in five) suffer from a mental health condition. That’s a hell of a lot higher than our nation’s rate of unemployment.
I read a fascinating but sobering book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine, a child psychologist in nearby Marin County. She describes the often disastrous results of affluent parents pressuring their kids to achieve a certain standard of worldly success:
As long as kids are not afforded the opportunity to craft a sense of self that feels authentic, a sense of self that truly comes from within, psychologists like myself will continue to see more and more youngsters at risk for profound feelings of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and emptiness.
The authentic self
Let’s examine what a truly authentic STEM kid might look like. A generation ago, only oddball nerds dug computers. Consider my brother Bryan, for example. He naturally gravitated toward programming and in junior high spent countless hours in front of a teletype, which was a type of primitive computer that didn’t even have a monitor: it was connected to a printer and to a mainframe somewhere. Nobody knows what the hell he and his rare ilk were actually doing with these machines. Baseline Junior High had exactly two teletypes, and Bryan didn’t have to compete with very many others for access. (He did, however, have to talk his teachers into letting him cut typing class and study hall to get that precious computer time.) He was a dyed-in-the-wool computer geek, who loved the pure logic of programming, and that was that.
And now we have politicians, corporate spokespeople, the media, and parents saying everybody should be diving into technology, engineering, and such. Sure, everybody uses computers and smartphones now, but does that mean everyone should be designing, building, or programming them? Does the idea (however exaggerated) that all the good jobs are in STEM fields suddenly mean this is what actually ought to interest your typical kid? Is everybody a tech-geek now, just because society has decided we need more of them?
Allow me a playful analogy: what if the experts determined that, as far as pets go, dogs had a brighter future than cats? What if we decided that it just wasn’t practical, in the 21st century, to behave in a feline fashion? Would anybody try to teach a housecat to tolerate a leash, to ride in the car, to bark, and to wag its tail to show happiness? Of course this would be decried as nonsense: nobody could ask a cat to change its very nature. But how are humans any different?
And yet, there’s this widespread idea that everybody now ought to be immersed in this specialized world of bits and bytes, vectors and trajectories, atoms and angles. The profit motive seems to have warped everybody’s sensibility here. Let’s face it: kids throughout time have had plenty of math and science instruction in school … those subjects were never really neglected. What’s changed is this idea, suddenly, that what schools have been offering isn’t enough and we should all have our knickers in a twist about it, with new programs, new legislation, and budget cuts for the liberal arts.
My community’s progressive and well-run school district provides plenty of opportunities in STEM. A year or so ago, my older daughter even signed up for a high school Computer Science course, and I was all for it—because it was her idea. I even offered to help her mess around with our family’s Arduino programmable microcontroller when the time came. However, a couple weeks into the term my daughter decided that she just didn’t dig the class, and ultimately dropped it. (She was sad about this, since she really liked the teacher, but knew herself well enough to recognize a bad fit. Not that she’s anti-STEM; she’s in college now, majoring in Psychological & Brain Sciences.)
Looking at the wider realm of STEM—the non-T, non-E part—certainly the realms of science and math are capacious enough to accommodate a wide variety of interests. But the decline in Humanities majors deserves to be wondered about. How much of this can be chalked up to parental influence around what our kids pursue, and why?
My own story
I couldn’t blame you for assuming that my skepticism toward STEM is a case of sour grapes, or a defensive crouch based on my own (supposedly) humble liberal arts education. But in fact, I’ve worked in STEM for my whole career. (Though I didn’t set out to be an engineer, my dormant technical ability was discovered when I took a programming aptitude test during recruitment by an Internet company.) I was able to learn Internet routing, shell scripting, network troubleshooting, traffic shaping, access control, and network design on the job, but my career growth has been largely based on so-called “soft skills”—including the ability to communicate, write, negotiate, and imagine others’ points of view—which all came from my liberal education. As my work has evolved, what I learned in college has only become more important. I am truly grateful I didn’t “play it safe” by studying Computer Science, Engineering, or Math (like my dad, ahead of his time in Humanities-bashing, exhorted me to).
What employers really want
So your next question might be, isn’t my case kind of an anomaly? Not necessarily. Certain fields, like Chemical Engineering, do require specific credentials. But high tech seems to prioritize the ability to learn above having specific credentials, and employs a wide variety of people. As described in this article, featured in the UCSB Vice Chancellor’s pro-liberal-arts presentation, Google appreciates many capabilities typically associated with a liberal education:
In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others’ different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.
This Forbes article, also cited by the UCSB Vice Chancellor, declares that “That ‘useless’ liberal arts education has become tech’s hottest ticket.” It goes on to say:
Software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger… At disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers—and make progress seem pleasant.
Conclusion: what is to be done?
I hope that I’ve made a compelling case here that the widespread effort to push more kids into STEM is myopic at best. STEM doesn’t guarantee a higher income; doesn’t increase the likelihood of gainful employment; and, moreover, doesn’t support our kids and their need for a true sense of self. Ultimately, where a young person lands isn’t a simple plug-and-play matter of what degree he or she earned. I truly believe that when it comes to the next generation, all of us—the parents, the politicians, and the pundits—would do well to just shut up and stand aside. Let’s let our kids follow their own interests, trusting in themselves, in higher education, and in the vast and varied job market.
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