STEM. Creating A Minion Nation   Leave a comment

The GOP and Stalin Agree: Ideas Are Unnecessary

March 31, 2016

Today’s journalists love acronyms. They provide writers with a type of shorthand which also (they hope) suggests they know so much more than the reader. Just a few years ago BRIC, for example, was a hot topic; writers, politicians, and economists all jumped on the bandwagon to declare that these countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China—constituted the new economic bloc to be reckoned with. BRIC was introduced by Goldman-Sachs as a bit of economic futurism. It downplayed the potential strength of Europe and North America, and simultaneously projected the sunny economic potential of the BRICS (South Africa was added later, hence the ”S”.) In any case, BRIC(S) gave journalists a clever word that dripped with a certain lingual superiority, as they became de facto cheerleaders for the moneychangers pushing this nirvana-to-be scenario. A little more than a decade later, all that shiny Goldman-Sachsian predilection is not, well, so shiny. Fortune—not known as a mouthpiece of the proletariat—offered this grim assessment:

“There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed the rugged promise of the globe’s economic frontier could be summed up with a simple acronym: BRIC. To investors and corporate prospectors alike, Brazil, Russia, India, and China were like Gold Rush towns high in the hills—deep, rich veins of commerce that could be tapped by anybody quick enough, industrious enough, and brave enough to stake a claim.” . . . “Yet as much as we might celebrate the concept of BRIConomics for its insight and uncanny timeliness, it is time now to put the thing to pasture. As quickly as the world transformed at the start of the millennium, it is changing again.” In short, Fortune’s view was that China’s economy was growing at the slowest pace in nearly a quarter-century, that “scandal-plagued Brazil” was on the edge of recession, and a declining appetite for oil coupled with economic sanctions and poor policy “have Russia reeling”. No Chia pets, hula hoops, pet rocks, or other dynamic economic stimulants on the near horizon to foster a quick reversal of fortunes.

Which brings me to STEM. Like the gushing embrace of BRIC, STEM is the new flavor of the month with many GOP politicians. This acronym is shorthand for a clever distillation on education: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. To them, STEM is what really matters. On the surface there is nothing wrong with placing an emphasis on these core subjects. However, politicians are attempting to make this a zero-sum game. When the pool of education money is finite, then increased emphasis on one aspect of education means a decreased emphasis on the other. Who needs those silly history lessons—that’s all old stuff anythway. All about dead guys. And foreign languages? English has worked for me. Literature? What can I possibly learn from Shakespeare or Voltaire. Before you think that this is as cartoonish as the images of someone walking through the financial district holding a sign declaring “the end is near” consider the loud voices in the GOP. For a political party often complaining about government overreach, as in dictating what we will or won’t do, consider this from the New York Times, about the efforts of some of the darlings of the right:

• Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin suggested in February that “students majoring in French literature should not receive state funding for their college education.”

• North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory is on record as declaring “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it,” McCrory said. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

• Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio was unequivocal: “Welders make more money than philosophers . . . . We need more welders and less philosophers.” [Note to Marco: It’s “fewer” in this context, not “less”.]

• Florida Governor Rick Scott said “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here.”

At the very least this is gross naiveté on the part of these and other politicians. A far more likely scenario is that we are viewing a GOP effort toward social engineering; creating a society able to write code, but unable to connect the dots between political decisions and unexpected outcomes. An extreme example might be, if we study physics and nothing else, we can, among other things, learn how to make a nuclear weapon. If we study the humanities as well, we can learn about the outcomes of using nuclear weapons: after atmospheric testing in the Pacific, after the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, and after the original Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, nuclear weapons can be bad.

When I returned to college in the 1990s, I chose my school carefully: that is to say, I found the nearest 4-year college. At Fairfield University, a Jesuit school, I gained knowledge and I honed my skills in critical thinking. It may have been a happy accident for me that Fairfield University was nearest to me in Connecticut, a 30-minute drive from my home. After all, the Jesuits have been honing their own skills through four centuries of education for both the religiously devoted and the laity. Ignatius Loyola’s ideas became the fundamental building blocks for the Society of Jesus, which began, not surprisingly, building schools. For all of their bravado about devotion to Christianity, the GOP in general, and those lay-pontificators above seem to miss the point. It’s about humanity stupid.

The Rev. Jack Butler of Boston College describes a Jesuit education as having six core elements. In short, [1] Care of the person, [2] Experience, [3] Liberal arts, [4] Mission, [5] Service of justice, [6] Anticipatory joy.

Butler’s more detailed descriptions are in an article titled “What is Jesuit education?”, and it is worth reading. When talking about the Liberal Arts—and central, in my opinion, to the STEM conversation—Butler offered this:

“Ignatius Loyola said that if individuals follow their desire, they will find God. In order to find that desire, Butler said, students need a broad basis of knowledge from which to begin seeking. Another reason that Jesuit education emphasizes the liberal arts is so that students can find God in all things. And finally, Jesuits believe that students should be able to converse on a range of topics.”

I’m not here to advocate for religion in general or a Jesuit education in particular, although I believe there is real value in what they offer. I am, however, against a new brand of social engineering that creates only the worker bees who can labor for the wealthy: you make the honey and we’ll handle the money.

Bevin, McCrory, Rubio, Scott, and so many other Republicans believe that history, philosophy, religion, literature, art, gender studies, music, anthropology (and others) are superfluous, non-essential to the knowledge intake of students. It’s a myopic view that could only be promoted by members of a ruling class. I’m reminded of the USSR’s infamous leader Joseph Stalin’s philosophy of ideas. While not a comparison to Rubio, et al, Stalin offered this nugget: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.”

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen


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