The Need to Be Skeptical and Critical of STEM Education and Business Demands for Certain Kinds of Graduates

“…it was in the 1990s that shop class started to become a thing of the past, as educators prepared students to become ‘knowledge workers.'” Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

I recently read Matthew B. Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I highly recommend for all educators. This quote from the beginning of the book captured my attention immediately because the book as a whole outlines an important mindset educators have been neglecting when it comes to thinking about the kinds of graduates we should be producing. The prevailing thinking today is that public education’s job is to produce the kinds of workers that business and industry currently demands. To me that is shortsighted and a disservice to our students and society.
The education system has taken on the role of distributing people in the niches needed by business and industry. In the case described by Crawford, when business calls for “knowledge workers,” the system reacts and cuts funding of some programs and distributes students into the chosen learning niches of business and industry. The problem with the education system reacting in this manner, is that they place students in niches that might be short-lived due to business and industry’s concerns with short-term profits and benefits. 

Business and industry rarely has only the long-term interests of students and people in general in mind. Hence, the evidence of this is their decisions to move entire production lines overseas or to lay workers off for the sake of short-term stock benefit. Education systems that purely have their students’ interests in mind will look with a skeptical eye towards the kinds of workers called for from the private sector. It does not mean that the system ignores them entirely, but educators need to remember that the way business ideology is currently constructed in the United States especially, is more libertarian and tilted toward the idea that what is best for them is what is best for everybody. A quick glance at history immediately dispels this illusion. Maybe instead of shoving students into the STEM niche, we need a broader consideration of their potentials and interests. Niche-learning limits possibilities rather than increases them despite what the pro-business and STEM evangelists would have us believe.

Educators need to be critical and skeptical of claims made by politicians regarding what kinds of graduates are needed. We can certainly listen, but we also need to remember that they are obligated by current economic and business ideology to look after themselves. Shoving every student into some STEM approach to education or making sure every student can program might not be in some students’ best interest. As Matthew Crawford laments in his book, the decline of shop class to produce so-called 21st century workers might not be the best course for our students. We are still going to need shop mechanics, bricklayers, carpenters, and other trades, and there can be great satisfaction in doing this work as a life-long career. We are also going to need writers, artists, musicians. Let’s remember that programs like STEM education and other initiatives can place limits on students’ futures rather than possibilities.