STEM and the ‘Factory Model’ Education System

A cartoon by David Stroup shows the societal value of STEM and the dismissal of the humanities. Image by David Stroup.

In the United States education system, there is a growing emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, a group of subjects collectively referred to as STEM. This priority is prominent in higher education, with the number of students majoring in STEM from 2010 to 2016 increasing by 43 percent according to Emsi, an economic data company. In contrast, humanities degrees have declined by 0.4 percent. The trend is also followed by government funding; a report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2013 reveals that the government covers 50-75 percent of STEM related research at universities and only 20 percent of the cost of humanities programs.

The push for STEM in America can be traced back to the Cold War, when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit in 1957. Although the arts had been the butt of jokes for a period of time before then, the success of the USSR seemed to prove something: science curriculum in America was lagging behind that of the rest of the world. In 1958, the National Defense Education Act was approved by Congress, essentially incentivizing the study of STEM fields. Government action was furthered in 1983 when the Reagan Administration released a report titled “A Nation at Risk.” This study promoted the idea that the American education system was somehow failing and suggested common core classes and a greater emphasis on standardized tests.

The prioritizing of education that can be measured quantitatively through standardized testing created a model that was profitable for large corporations. “[The American school system is] just money-making for education corporations and a way to impose the factory model on education,” says Sandra Childs, the Franklin librarian and media specialist. She emphasizes how this model detracts from the enjoyment of learning, basing value on memorization and grades rather than on knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

However, the profitability of this system has led companies to claim an alleged discrepancy between the number of STEM majors coming out of universities and available jobs in those fields. “[Corporations] have a profit motive to try to make sure they have as many potential STEM employees as they can possibly get,” explains David Stroup, a physics teacher at Franklin. Robert Charette supports this idea in a Spectrum article, calculating that there are 11.4 million STEM majors working outside of the field, but only 277,000 job openings in STEM annually. Beyond statistics, the way in which STEM is promoted places more emphasis on technology-related fields than pure math or science, highlighting the influence of corporations on the American education system.

Cast aside in this profit-based STEM-dominated society is the study of humanities. “There tends to be a feeling, especially from people in the business world, that if you can’t put a number on it, it can’t be worthwhile,” says Stroup. This perspective devalues the merits of the arts, English, and social studies, painting them as less essential and unviable career options.

Many have pushed back against the belittlement of languages and the social sciences, arguing that they are still important and play a major role in developing critical thinking and creating more well-rounded students. “A lot of what we do in the humanities is about integrating ourselves and about being able to live in this very complicated world,” explains Childs. English and social studies classes teach people to think about society and evaluate it from a perspective that is not solely based on numbers, examining people, their motives, and the ways in which they interact with the world. “It’s really valuable…to learn to think about other people and analyze them as humans,” says Ilse Stacklie-Vogt (11). She notes that both science and the humanities foster analytic skills, but when it comes to literature and history, “you’re analyzing something that thinks back at you.”

The skills targeted by the social sciences are applicable beyond interpreting art and history. “People neglect to realize that the humanities are also about critical thinking…which allows us to be actively engaged citizens,” Childs points out. The value of these skills in politics, in formulating compelling arguments, even in concisely articulating the findings of an experiment, cannot be understated.

This isn’t to say that advancements in STEM should be dismissed—the rapid growth of science and technology, especially in the past couple decades, has dramatically changed the way we view the world—but the merits of the humanities are not to be understated in the wake of STEM’s rise in American society. “Interdisciplinary things are always better, because that’s how the real world works,” says Stacklie-Vogt. With strong corporate values promoting STEM seeping into American culture, is it important that social sciences and the analytic skills that they promote are not cast to the wayside. By drawing lessons from both STEM and the humanities, students, and society as a whole, can work to become knowledgeable and well-rounded people.

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