Raising Human Beings in a STEM World

3 young boys standing in STEM world graphicSeveral years ago, I was asked by a lady who was starting a classical school if I would come give a speech to an education group in her community. I had planned my usual talk in which I discuss the advantages of a  classical Christian education, but on the way there found out that this “education and business partnership” group was made up largely of teachers and administrators from the local public school district. And, as we sat eating lunch after I arrived, I was informed that the group really was almost exclusively public educators, with maybe five business people in attendance. It didn’t take me long to conclude that my speech about the glories of private classical Christian education would be completely ineffective with a group of mostly public educators. I might even get run out on a rail. And the business people? Wouldn’t they be even less interested in my talk about the idea of education as training in wisdom and virtue?

So I began my talk, trying to adapt it as I could to the new situation. I talked about the practical value of a liberal arts education, of reading history and literature, and of the benefit these things had for students whose  greatest need is be taught how to be human beings who can think and act well, and why in knowing these things they would be better at any job.

Sitting in the center of the room was a woman who (I was later informed) was the superintendent of the local school district. She sat there, right in my line of sight, glaring at me the whole time. When I spoke of the value of Western civilization, she glared. When I talked about the communication skills acquired by reading Shakespeare and Dickens, she glared some more. And when I talked about the mental skills acquired by learning Latin? Well, let’s just say she looked like she would prefer to be anywhere else but in that room.

But all was not entirely lost. As a speaker, you learn to direct your glance at people who do seem to appreciate your message. You try to ignore those who do not like what you are saying and focus your vision on those who do. In this case, I had a lot of people to ignore. Most of the people in the room clearly had no use for my message, but five people in the room were nodding their heads through nearly all of my remarks.

After I finished, most of the audience, clearly relieved, left quickly. But five people stayed to talk with me. These five business people—the same ones who had nodded throughout my speech—appreciated what I had to say and wanted to tell me how much they agreed with me.

“Let me tell you,” said a young professional woman who owned a business in the community, “what studying Latin in school did for me.” And she launched off on a five-minute disquisition on the benefits of what the now- absent educators considered a dead and useless language. The others had similar stories to tell about how studying the humanities had helped them in business and in life.

In the years since I gave that talk, I have come to realize how big the disconnect is between the education world and the professional world when it comes to agreeing on the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the modern world.

Schools have largely abandoned the teaching of history and literature. (Ask any recent grad how many books he or she had to read over the course of a twelve-year education.) And Latin? It was expelled from the curriculum of the vast majority of schools decades ago. The message coming from the education establishment today is centered on one particular thing: STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The old idea of schools as places that formed the souls of students has now been fully replaced by a new idea that the purpose of schools is to teach children the narrow skills they think students will need to get a job in the modern economy. And—what is much worse—the people who run our schools see no connection between these two goals.

The chief problem is this: What schools think the modern economy needs and what leaders in the modern economy say they need are two entirely different things. Like those five business people at my talk, most of the people who are successful in business know that they need job candidates who know how to think and how to communicate. They also know that these skills are not best taught in a narrow vocational program.

Schools misunderstand the current economy. They think that all or most jobs are programming jobs. Yes, there are programming jobs and, yes, they are well-paying, but the vast majority of jobs at even a specialized tech company are not tech jobs, but jobs in marketing and customer service—in other words, communication jobs.

Not only do schools not understand the current job world, but they are very poor predictors of what the future economy will require. When I was in college we were told that the computer languages of the future were Pascal and Fortran, but when we graduated those languages were already on their way out. In fact, one of the most common criticisms of college computer science programs from the tech industry is that they are out of
touch with their industry.

In his Wall Street Journal article, “Why I’m Not Looking to Hire Computer-Science Majors,” Daniel Gelernter, CEO of the tech startup Dittach, says: “The thing I don’t look for in a developer is a degree in computer science. University computer science departments are in miserable shape: Ten years behind in a field that changes every ten minutes.” There is little reason to think that the situation has improved since he wrote the article in 2015.

If colleges are out of touch with the computer industry, just imagine how out of touch your local school system is. And what makes us think that schools would be able to prepare students for the job world even if they knew what it needed? They would need to have trained, experienced tech professionals who knew what needed to be taught and how to teach it. Where are we going to find these people who are willing to give up the lucrative salaries they could be making in order to teach in our increasingly dysfunctional and low-paying schools?

But let’s say we can solve all of the above. We need to ask another question: Would using our schools to teach narrow, technical job skills really benefit students? Does STEM, even if it could accomplish what it promises, make sense at all?

In his 2019 book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein argues that early specialized training works in some areas but that the modern tech economy is not one of  them. He cites two exemplars for his study: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Tiger Woods specialized in golf and focused on it exclusively from an early age. As a result, he achieved early success but he burned out early. Roger Federer, on the other hand, engaged in many sports when he was young—squash, skiing, wrestling, swimming, skateboarding, basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, badminton, and soccer—and did a lot of things unrelated to sports. As a result, he achieved his success a little later but it lasted a lot longer. Tiger was the model specialist and Roger the model generalist.

Epstein observes that the Tiger/Roger comparison helps in understanding an interesting phenomenon that applies broadly in life, which is that there are some things that benefit from early, deliberate, exclusive  specialization, but there are other things that benefit from early diverse training and later specialization. It so happens that the Tiger method works in fields in which there are certain fixed patterns that can be mastered (chess, golf, classical music). Epstein calls these “kind domains.” But the Roger method works in fields that require a broader vision and a more diverse background. These Epstein calls “wicked domains.” The Roger path is more common than the Tiger path. In fact, the Tiger path is the exception, not the rule.

So the question arises: Is the modern tech economy a kind domain, or a wicked domain? Is it one that requires early, specialized training of the kind STEM programs purport to give, or is it one that benefits from general training of the kind that, say, a broad, classical liberal arts program would offer?

The modern tech economy, Epstein says, is much more like tennis than like golf. In the computer industry, a Roger is far better fitted to succeed than a Tiger. Not only, says Epstein, is the tech economy like tennis, it is like “martian tennis”: There are few fixed patterns and definite rules, and the rules are changing all the time.STEM

When asked about his success in founding Apple, Steve Jobs mentions, not his expertise in coding or technical skills, but his calligraphy class in college where he learned design and without which there would be no  Apple. By his own admission, Jobs succeeded not because he was a coder with technical expertise, but because he was a marketer with a great imagination.

An emphasis on specialized skills in K-12 education is a mistake, and the promised benefits are a mirage. This is a truth that many in the business world know, but of which educational policymakers seem almost  completely unaware. The skills required for success in the modern world are general and diverse. The ability to think in complex ways, to imagine what people will want, to communicate with other people—these are the skills the tech economy needs and they are in short supply.

What better training to think is there than the liberal arts, which involve a systematic study of language and mathematical skills? A software engineer can do no better than to study the complex grammar of Latin, which teaches a facility with the two basic thinking skills: analysis and synthesis. Is there better preparation for communication than rhetoric, the art of persuasion? And is there anything more helpful to students who want better communication skills than to engage in a study of the different personality types presented in literature?

It just so happens that our schools once taught these things, and they called it “classical education.”

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