Opinion: Social and political problems are partially a result of STEM education

Both public education and higher education seem more dedicated to producing capable employees than to producing good citizens.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lily Aguilar, 10, reads in the Children's Section of the Ruth Vine Tyler Library, Nov. 23, 2021.

In his book “Riding Out the Storm,” Native American author Phillip Morgan writes: “I propose as food for thought, very much inspired by what I have learned in this study, that our best educational option for achieving solutions to technology-driven catastrophes is not more science and math education, but rather more education in the humanities — specifically language, literature, art, history, philosophy, international law and ethics — disciplines which equip us as human beings capable of cooperating with our fellow citizens on the small planet Earth in solving our common problems. Education in the humanities, I propose, holds more promise than math and science education in solving some of the greater social problems of our day as well; problems such as human rights abuse, domestic abuse, school bullying, gun violence, substance abuse, epidemic disease and obesity.”

Professor Morgan offers a profound observation. Both public education and higher education seem more dedicated to producing capable employees than to producing good citizens. When congress persons seem incapable of passing meaningful legislation, it is not because they don’t know mathematics, it’s because they don’t know (or at least don’t understand) history, moral philosophy, social responsibility and ethics.

Racism, sexism and other social evils would seem more likely to express themselves in individuals who go through life with limited exposure to the arts, philosophy, sociology, economics and history. Even small antisocial acts such as ignoring traffic rules, cheating on taxes or shoplifting would seem most likely favored by individuals whose education did not include sufficient exposure to the critical need for social responsibility by every citizen. Education should help students learn and understand that there can never be enough police to enforce all traffic regulations, and there can never be enough IRS employees to “catch” all tax cheaters. Much of what we call civilization depends on voluntary compliance by individual citizens who benefit from living in a cooperative social environment.

When citizens cast votes for Donald Trump, I believe, it’s partly because they did not learn enough in school about morality, social responsibility, politics and international relations. Indeed, part of the fascination with Mr. Trump is that he suggests singular hard-and-fast answers for our political and social challenges, much like the hard-and-fast answers to most scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical questions. But there are few universally correct answers for problems stemming from the infinite variations of human behavior. Most successful solutions to ethical, political and social challenges require compromise. Many conflicts in science can be resolved through careful research. That is not true in the humanities, where conflicts require give and take among individuals, groups and ideas.

It’s little wonder that science and technology education attracts more money than the arts, philosophy and history. That’s especially true in higher education which is increasingly dependent on “outside” money from business, industry and individuals. Education, itself, has become more like a business than a community service. The object is to produce a sellable product more than it is to enhance living conditions for society in general.

Both science and technology would benefit from more of the ambiguity that characterizes humanities. Major advancements came from scientists and technicians who rejected the “accepted wisdom” of their fields. Consider X-rays, immunization and television, for example.

It’s true, of course, that the education experience should include generous helpings of STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In the modern world, those subjects offer the basis of many occupational skills. But as Professor Morgan argues, STEM education should be balanced by generous helpings of subjects that help young women and men become better citizens, better parents, better work associates, better friends and neighbors, and simply better human beings.

Don Gale.

Don Gale, Ph.D., was a faculty member at two universities before pursuing a career in opinion journalism. He was honored when Professor Phil Morgan (Chickasaw and Chocktaw Tribes) sent a copy of his book which included in his personalized inscription this sentence: “We are brothers.”

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