STEM-ming the Slide of Our Educational System

Recently we ran across several fascinating articles about civics, liberal arts, and climate hysteria that raise basic questions about the content taught at too many of our educational institutions: Has our society lost sight of the fundamental purpose of education, and is the result less resilient, less capable adults?

While there is no doubt that a significant aspect of schooling is still about learning the “three-Rs,” the ultimate goal must be that of teaching people how to reason, critically evaluate data, perform accurate risk assessments, and communicate effectively. Sadly, few of these critical skills are being imparted by today’s secondary and post-secondary institutions. Instead, young people are often confused or diverted by questionable social media sources with many agendas, but that is a subject for another day.

It is no accident that STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) programs produce the most lucrative jobs and careers. After all, it is impossible to be competent in these fields without the skills of analysis, logical reasoning, and the ability to interpret data. This is not axiomatic in many other fields of study. In fact, at some institutions and in some fields, the principal “educational” goal is merely to instill passion and ideology.

American Greatness senior contributor Julie Kelly recently observed: “K-12 school textbooks now are filled with dire predictions about anthropogenic global warming, and college campuses administer nonstop brainwashing on the subject while dedicating enormous amounts of publicly funded ‘research’ to give an academic mooring to climate hysteria.”

Often, the driver is “wokeness,” social justice, or the politically correct fad du jour. After all, what can we learn from old, dead, white guys like Aristotle, Shakespeare, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, or George Orwell, if instead we can watch videos of profane, postmodern poet-philosophers or teenage environmentalist sock-puppet Greta Thunberg?

And as an article by Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn points out, it is no longer necessary to be an effective writer or to have gone through the process of deep analysis of objectively great works to receive a degree in English. Ask almost any partner in a large law firm and he will tell you that today’s young associates are, by and large, absolutely awful writers. That offers an excellent window into the problem.

Content may be excised from courses because it is “too white,” refers to historical events or behavior that is anathema to today’s sensibilities, is full of “toxic masculinity,” displays outdated attitudes, etc.—in other words, is insufficiently woke.

It’s unclear how rationality could be introduced into public education, although requiring students to pass the citizenship exam administered to immigrants might help.

It is no longer feasible to demand research or essays on topics that might disturb the student. It is as if the courts conjured up a new universal right: the right not to be offended. And ideological balance among teachers and professors is but a distant memory, which deprives students of the perspective and skills that they will need to become high-functioning adults in much of the “real world.”

The current educational curriculum is also seriously deficient in content that is critical to a well-functioning American society. Only a small percentage of high schools—or even colleges—graduate students who understand the fundamental mechanisms of our governments, how the different levels interact, and the constitutional basis of the system. Even when they know the words, such as “freedom of speech” and “due process,” often they don’t grasp how these principles are actually guaranteed.   

Tossing into this mix the over-indulgence that greets students, we will continue to produce non-resilient adults who have a sense of entitlement, and who will operate according to the progressive orthodoxies foisted upon them. Examples of this are everywhere, such as the blind acceptance of the blandishments of socialism and the Green New Deal. 

The shortfall of reasoning and filtering skills in the current educational environment has cost us dearly in time, money, and productivity. We have a political environment that is highly polarized, at least in part because of the constant clash between ideology and reason. The current Democratic Party’s presidential primary process is dominated by appeals to emotion and promises of largess instead of reasoned arguments supported by data. The aspirants know that younger voters have been “educated”—that is, conditioned—to respond. 

The decline of traditional courses in high school and core requirements seems to have occurred gradually over several decades. Ironically, the liberal thinking behind that devolution effectively has undermined the “liberal arts” and devalued college degrees subsumed under that rubric. With (politically) progressive forces in firm control of academia and many public-schools’ curricula, it is difficult to envision any correction.

We need a reboot of K-12 and university curricula, but that won’t be easy to achieve. For the former, homeschooling or private schools with a certain desired worldview are possibilities, but those alternatives are not available or attractive to everyone. It’s unclear how rationality could be introduced into public education, although requiring students to pass the citizenship exam administered to immigrants might help. As to curricula and degree requirements at universities, where the inmates run the asylum, we despair.

Assuming we continue as a free market economy, we may need to rely upon the employers in the United States to become more selective and to demand that applicants have the basic skills they need but are not being taught. In the process, maybe they can provide the adult supervision that is so conspicuously absent and do everyone a service in the long-term.

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About Andrew I. Fillat and Henry I. Miller

Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.

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