STEM (Culture) Sucks

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STEM has the most jobs and pays the big bucks. STEM must simply be better. Or is it? (Alexandro Lacadena/Creative Commons)

Science, Technology, Engineering, Math: truly the cornerstones of modern society. There’s a reason why there’s such a big STEM focus in schools at all levels. There’s a reason why the Honors College at UConn is dominated by kids in STEM majors. And it’s all because STEM has the most jobs and pays the big bucks. STEM must simply be better. Or is it?

If it wasn’t obvious, I hate the culture surrounding this four-letter acronym. Despite sitting squarely in STEM fields, I dislike everything related to, concerning or tailored to it. Domineered by science and engineering in particular, the aura of condescension and self-aggrandizement that is rampant in colleges is so toxic it is choking. Even worse, it is willfully ignorant of the reasons why there is such a STEM focus in our society. People just believe in the power of these more “honorable” fields without considering where this power comes from.

The pedestal that STEM education has been placed on is pervasive at all levels. It is common rhetoric at this point that degrees in fields like English, sociology and art are “unemployable” or “unviable,” almost as if the only people with jobs worth having are engineers and doctors. Even within STEM, all are not equal. Personally, I have experienced much suspicion as to the benefits of a math degree, despite mathematicians having more options than ever. It doesn’t come along with a job tailored for it, though, so it must not be worth it.

STEM – and especially the medical and engineering sides of it – are simply seen as king. This idea is peddled by the powers that be, is spread by speakers and teachers, and is internalized by parents and their children. The problem is, not only is this concept horribly reductive to those in the demeaned fields, not only is it detrimental to those who have listened to the rhetoric, but it is also in large part artificial.

The reason so much focus is placed on STEM is twofold. First, there is the fact that much of our modern condition is so complicated that it requires equally complex and specialized professions. This part is completely legitimate. The other, more contrived part of the equation comes from the aforementioned powers that be. STEM is propped up as it is in part because of funding from the military, both directly and indirectly.

The Department of Defense takes special interest in funding STEM education. There is an Army Educational Outreach Program that serves to promote STEM for students with a specific tint towards serving the army. The NSA commonly pumps money into and sponsors math majors to join them. UConn even opened a new program this year for engineers interested in the Navy. There are signs everywhere of the military trying to push for more STEM students, and the motivation is obvious. The machinery, manufacturing and technical needs of the military far surpass any public needs, and so a large amount of students are needed to prop up this system.

I am not saying at all that STEM is a worthless pursuit. Nor am I trying to make a statement on the morality of the military having such a large impact on education. All I am saying is to consider this: would there still be such a focus on STEM if the Department of Defense did not push for it so much? If the government were to instead fund pursuits trying to further culture and the human condition (fields like sociology, psychology, and the arts/humanities), would there still be such a toxic culture surrounding engineering and science? How many of the current STEM majors would instead pursue other interests if there was a government-sponsored market for it?


Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist  for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu.  

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