This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on April 30, 2015.
Fareed Zakaria, a writer for the Washington Post as well as a CNN host, believes that America has an unhealthy “obsession” with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. “America’s last bipartisan cause is this,”he writes, “A liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward. It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition.” Without denying that “science and technology are crucial components” of education, Zakaria warns nonetheless, “This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts—and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.” Why?
According to Zakaria, the STEM-surge will destroy “the kind of teaching” that has helped this country lead “the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship.” What kind of teaching? “A broad general education,” which “helps foster critical thinking and creativity.” Such an education, he urges, along with an “optimistic outlook,” helps Americans go on to outperform the rest of the world economically despite the fact that our students score relatively poorly compared to other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations in math, science, and reading.
For these reasons, he warns us against “try[ing] to mimic Asian educational systems, which are oriented around memorization and test-taking.” Japan may have students with stronger math and science skills, but “you still need to know how to learn, think, and even write,” because, in the final count, critical thinking “is the only way to protect American jobs.”
I agree fully with Zakaria’s assertion of the primacy of critical thinking. But does he prove his case that an increasing emphasis on STEM education will undermine students’ critical faculty? Lloyd Bentsen IV, of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, thinks not. In a recent piece, he argues that, “if Fareed Zakaria has his way, the United States education system will continue to fail our children.” Bentsen is more concerned than is Zakaria with American students’ low scores in international comparisons. In 2012, Bentsen reports, American students “ranked 36thamong developed countries in mathematics”; in science, U.S. students “scored below the average.” Moreover, citing U.S. Commerce Department statistics, Bentsen informs us that STEM-job creation has outpaced non-STEM jobs by a rate of 3-to-1 over the past ten years. STEM jobs abound today—there are 277,000 job vacancies, “and it is estimated that there could be 2.4 million vacancies by 2018.” These factors, Bentsen concludes, explain why “the growing STEM movement had been called the answer to poverty, gender discrimination and unemployment.” For him, then, “encouraging our children to pursue” STEM fields “seems like a no-brainer.”
Who’s right? While there is no contesting Bentsen’s statistics, neither should we doubt Zakaria’s emphasis on the importance of critical thinking. But in trying to address Zakaria’s fear that an increased focus on STEM fields will undermine critical thinking, we need first to ask how effectively American higher education promotes critical thinking now. For the answer, we have the landmark national study of collegiate learning, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Published in 2011, Adrift reports the results of its tracking of 2300 college students from across the country, in public as well as private colleges, from the time they enrolled in 2005 through 2009. Employing the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), Adrift tested students’ capacities for critical thinking, complex reasoning, and clear writing in their first and fourth years in college.
The results are nothing less than shocking. Adrift finds that American students show little-to-no substantive increase in critical thinking after four years invested in college. Zakaria believes that STEM-obsession puts critical thinking in danger, but the truth is that this danger already has arrived—and long before the “STEM-surge.”
This point alone does not answer Zakaria’s concerns. That is, we wouldn’t want to lower our students’ critical-thinking capacities still further through an “obsession” with STEM studies. However, other results from the Adrift study call Zakaria’s thesis into question. Adrift finds that “Students majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields, including social science, humanities, natural science, and mathematics, demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study” (emphasis added). It is not the sciences and mathematics that undermine critical thinking, as Zakaria fears. Far from it. Instead, Adrift finds that “Students majoring in business, education, social work, and communications had the lowest measurable gains.”
For anyone familiar with the late Allan Bloom’s 1987 blockbuster—The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students—perhaps it comes as no surprise that the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics fare best on the CLA’s measurement of gains achieved in critical-thinking skills over four years. The natural sciences and mathematics have proven themselves least resistant to grade inflation. Regarding the humanities and social sciences, the questions and concerns they address, as well as the amount of reading, writing, and study time they require, render them more conducive to growth in critical thinking than do business, education, communications, and social work generally. Given that nearly every university mission statement cites critical thinking as an essential goal (and rightly so), it appears reasonable that requiring more of such courses for all students, regardless of their chosen majors—STEM or non-STEM—would best advance the goal Zakaria envisions.
A required, common-core curriculum in the sciences and liberal arts—dispensed with a half-century ago in the name of “relevance” and “openness” (what Blooms dismisses as the “openness of indifference”)—is more relevant than ever. I deem the half-century decline in this country in common-core curricula in the liberal arts and sciences to be the deepest cause of the poor results Adrift documents. Although Zakaria is right that a sole focus on STEM subjects, in the absence of liberal-arts study, would exacerbate this unfortunate trend in critical thinking, the fault lies not with the recent STEM-surge, but with the surge of moral and cultural relativism now being taught in college liberal arts courses.
Relativism is primarily responsible for the growing moral bankruptcy of the humanities and social sciences, the shallowness and increasingly partisan tone of which sends more students away from the liberal arts than any STEM-surge could ever do (as I have argued here). The relativism taught in our universities holds that all ostensible answers to the chief questions animating a genuine liberal education—“Who am I?”; “What is the good life?”; “What is justice?”—are merely subjective preferences with no rational basis by which to rank them. Dogmatic relativism treats the liberal arts as mere hobbies, rather than as the indispensable prerequisites to living the “examined life” extolled and demonstrated by Socrates.
Accordingly, Zakaria is right to defend the liberal arts, but not what passes for liberal-arts education today, and not if he contends that the STEM-surge is the liberal arts’ greatest threat. Rather, it is the impoverished state of the liberal arts today that has created the gap into which STEM studies have rushed. Simply discouraging STEM education will not restore the liberal arts. To remedy the malady Zakaria diagnoses, a more radical enterprise is required, which consists in reexamining the relativistic assumption that all opinions about the good life are equally valuable because equally unknowable through human reason. Until our academic culture embraces again what is truly higher in higher education—our capacity to discover Truth—expect still more exoduses from the liberal arts, regardless of how much attention STEM studies receive.