Sputnik Moment: Science as Destiny

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Pres. Obama called the current state of affairs a “Sputnik moment” for the USA: a time when we’re under great threat and need to step up to the plate so that we can “own the future.” Much has been made of the metaphor—the Atlantic did a great roundup of the various reactions on editorial pages, most of which questioned the aptness of the comparison, and PoliPulse.com has a fun graphic illustrating the breakdown of reactions posted online (12% said the public was too young to get the reference; 16% said the metaphor was irrelevant; 7% said this was “Communist language,” which is just flat-out baffling).

Whether or not the metaphor is historically accurate or helpful, I wonder about another thing: the equation Obama made over and over in his speech between education in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, and education writ large. He often moved seamlessly back and forth between the two, without ever pointing out the equivalency he was creating. Take this paragraph:

Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.” Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.  And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Then there’s this sentence, on the Dream Act, an exhortation that places science and business together at the top of the “most desirable occupation” pyramid:

Let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation.

One of my friends on Facebook posted a forlorn status update: “Ooooobama, please don’t forget that the arts make space for empathy.” A friend commented consolingly: “Well….maybe at the next one.” Of course, it’s easier to push for the kind of education that will create people who can affect material change in society than it is to speak of education for “empathy” (or maybe Obama will never use that word again, after he tried it out during the Sotomayor confirmation and it didn’t go so well). John Dewey (and others!) used to make arguments about science education creating democratic, empowered minds; these aren’t the arguments being made here. (“Win the future”=not quite Deweyan.) The kind of STEM education Obama’s advocating isn’t a soft “science literacy” that could help a citizen solve everyday problems, it’s strong, powerful training that would provide new kinds of technical knowledge.

This line of argument touches one of the most fundamental questions I’m asking while writing my dissertation: when a nation promotes education in STEM subjects as by far the most desirable kind of learning, as we’re doing now and we did in the fifties and sixties, is that an unmitigatedly good thing? What does it mean to ask kids to be interested in, and to commit to, science learning? Perhaps because I myself failed to commit to a career in a STEM field,  I’m curious about the effect that this line of argument might have on young people whose affinities don’t lie in the STEM direction. If you’re not going STEM, are you going nowhere?

Clearly, we need better education in STEM fields; I would never argue the opposite. But some corners of the debate over national competitiveness seem to participate in a kind of panic over our kids’ moral fiber (or lack thereof). The comments on the YouTube video above include a bunch of derogatory jibes at the “laziness” of the American teenager; this line of argument is a vague echo of the way people talked about non-science-loving American kids during the Sputnik era: they’re coddled, they’re too outer-directed to pay attention in school, they’re soft. Obama hasn’t said anything like this—if there’s blame to be assigned, he’s assigning it to schools and parents—but the Internet, apparently, will say it for him…