An argument against emphasis on STEM education

Queens College professor and author Andrew Hacker.
Queens College professor and author Andrew Hacker. Aisha Hassan for CUNY Queens College

In America’s first math showdown, losing the global contest would have handed the space race to the Soviets and ceded the Cold War. Today we are facing our next math challenge, one in which we’re told China will devour our offspring for lunch because Johnny can’t do quadratic equations.

The doomsday warnings this time are couched in economic rather than military terms: We are falling behind in the global jobs war because we are not producing enough workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

This persistent math mantra has radically reshaped our nation’s education policy, steering kids into the math track as early as elementary school. But the STEM revolution is largely built on a mirage, argues Andrew Hacker in “The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions.”

A social critic known for his contrarian streak, Hacker says our STEM obsession is fueled by a manufactured crisis and is having destructive consequences for our society. It privileges a narrow range of talents, to the great disadvantage of students who aren’t wired that way, and ultimately will result in a job shortage for American technology workers.

“The suggestion that a mind can profit from perusing Emily Dickinson is barely heard in the century we are entering,” Hacker writes. “These delusions and illusions are already taking a heavy toll on this country, most markedly on the humane spirit that has made America exciting and unique.”

Hacker characterizes the prevailing STEM boom as “a major mythology of our time.” He denounces the STEM-centered value system as “an ideology, an industry, even a secular religion.”

Hacker, a professor of political science at Queens College, in New York, questions the touted benefits of algebra and calculus, and concludes these subjects are of little practical value for many high school and college students.

Worse, he contends, rigid math standards erect a barrier to entering professions like medicine. They are nothing more than a cruel weed-out mechanism that Hacker blames for high numbers of college dropouts.

“Imposing the mathematics of ‘college readiness’ on everyone will derail the academic careers of huge pools of our young people,” Hacker writes. “America’s educational highway is littered with dropouts at every mile, a human roadkill that doesn’t have to happen.”

His solution is not ending math requirements, but promoting the study of practical math and real-world statistics concepts that Hacker dubs “numeracy,” a subject to which he devotes an entire chapter.

One of the early figures of STEM-centrism is UNC System President Margaret Spellings. As secretary of education under President George W. Bush, Spellings convened the 2008 task force that generated an 857-page report warning that the American children were math dummies.

The report, which laid the philosophical groundwork for the Common Core curriculum, called for an overhaul of the U.S. educational system to prepare students to master essential skills needed to succeed in the emerging technology economy – such basic competencies as binomial coefficients and quadratic polynomials.

But Hacker says the numbers tell a different story. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the United States economy will add only about 130,400 engineering jobs by 2022. Meanwhile our education system is on track to mint 860,000 new engineering graduates over that time.

So what’s really going on here? Hacker is among the skeptics who suspect the high-tech industry is promoting STEM-focused training for its own ends: to glut the job market with an oversupply of technology workers in a ploy to drive down the cost of labor.

How else to explain the H-1B visas used by Microsoft, Intel, IBM and a host of other corporations to hire, at last count, more than a quarter-million foreign technology workers in this country? Notes Hacker: These temporary workers are paid about 57 percent of an equivalent American’s wage.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski


“The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions”

By Andrew Hacker

The New Press, 240 pages