STEMs and Roots

Everywhere we see extravagant public handwringing about education. Something is not working. The economy seems to be the symptom that garners the most attention, and there are people across the political spectrum who want to fix it directly; but most seem to agree that education is at least an important piece of the solution. We must produce competitive workers for the twenty-first century, proclaim the banners and headlines; if we do not, the United States will become a third-world nation. We need to get education on the fast track — education that is edgy, aggressive, and technologically savvy. Whatever else it is, it must be up to date, it must be fast, and it must be modern. It must not be what we have been doing.

I’m a Latin teacher. If I were a standup comedian, that would be considered a punch line. In addition to Latin, I teach literature — much of it hundreds of years old. I ask students, improbably, to see it for what it itself is, not just for what they can use it for themselves. What’s the point of that? one might ask. Things need to be made relevant to them, not the other way around, don’t they?

Being a Latin teacher, however (among other things), I have gone for a number of years now to the Summer Institute of the American Classical League, made up largely of Latin teachers across the country. One might expect them to be stubbornly resistant to these concerns — or perhaps blandly oblivious. That’s far from the case. Every year, in between the discussions of Latin and Greek literature and history, there are far more devoted to pedagogy: how to make Latin relevant to the needs of the twenty-first century, how to advance the goals of STEM education using classical languages, and how to utilize the available technology in the latest and greatest ways. What that technology does or does not do is of some interest, but the most important thing for many there is that it be new and catchy and up to date. Only that way can we hope to engage our ever-so-modern students.

The accrediting body that reviewed our curricular offerings at Scholars Online supplies a torrent of exortation about preparing our students for twenty-first century jobs by providing them with the latest skills. It’s obvious enough that the ones they have now aren’t doing the trick, since so many people are out of work, and so many of those who are employed seem to be in dead-end positions. The way out of our social and cultural morass lies, we are told, in a focus on the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Providing students with job skills is the main business of education. They need to be made employable. They need to be able to become wealthy, because that’s how our society understands, recognizes, and rewards worth. We pay lip service, but little else, to other standards of value.

The Sarah D. Barder Fellowship organization to which I also belong is a branch of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. It’s devoted to gifted and highly gifted education. At their annual conference they continue to push for skills, chiefly in the scientific and technical areas, to make our students competitive in the emergent job market. The highly gifted ought to be highly employable and hence earn high incomes. That’s what it means, isn’t it?

The politicians of both parties have contrived to disagree about almost everything, but they seem to agree about this. In January of 2014, President Barack Obama commented, “…I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”

From the other side of the aisle, Florida Governor Rick Scott said, “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

They’re both, of course, right. The problem isn’t that they have come up with the wrong answer. It isn’t even that they’re asking the wrong question. It’s that they’re asking only one of several relevant questions. They have drawn entirely correct conclusions from their premises. A well-trained plumber with a twelfth-grade education (or less) can make more money than I ever will as a Ph.D. That has been obvious for some time now. If I needed any reminding, the last time we required a plumber’s service, the point was amply reinforced: the two of them walked away in a day with about what I make in a month. It’s true, too, that a supply of anthropologists is not, on the face of things, serving the “compelling interests” of the state of Florida (or any other state, probably). In all fairness, President Obama said that he wasn’t talking about the value of art history as such, but merely its value in the job market. All the same, that he was dealing with the job market as the chief index of an education’s value is symptomatic of our culture’s expectations about education and its understanding of what it’s for.

The politicians haven’t created the problem; but they have bought, and are now helping to articulate further, the prevalent assessment of what ends are worth pursuing, and, by sheer repetition and emphasis, crowding the others out. I’m not at all against STEM subjects, nor am I against technologically competent workers. I use and enjoy technology. I am not intimidated by it. I teach online. I’ve been using the Internet for twenty-odd years. I buy a fantastic range of products online. I programmed the chat software I use to teach Latin and Greek, using PHP, JavaScript, and mySQL. I’m a registered Apple Developer. I think every literate person should know not only some Latin and Greek, but also some algebra and geometry. I even think, when going through Thucydides’ description of how the Plataeans determined the height of the wall the Thebans had built around their city, “This would be so much easier if they just applied a little trigonometry.” Everyone should know how to program a computer. Those are all good things, and help us understand the world we’re living in, whether we use them for work or not.

But they are not all that we need to know. So before you quietly determine that what I’m offering is just irrelevant, allow me to bring some news from the past. If that sounds contradictory, bear in mind that it’s really the only kind of news there is. All we know about anything at all, we know from the past, whether recent or distant. Everything in the paper or on the radio news is already in the past. Every idea we have has been formulated based on already-accumulated evidence and already-completed ratiocination. We may think we are looking at the future, but we aren’t: we’re at most observing the trends of the recent past and hypothesizing about what the future will be like. What I have to say is news, not because it’s about late-breaking happenings, but because it seems not to be widely known. The unsettling truth is that if we understood the past better and more deeply, we might be less sanguine about trusting the apparent trends of a year or even a decade as predictors of the future. They do not define our course into the infinite future, or even necessarily the short term — be they about job creation, technical developments, or weather patterns. We are no more able to envision the global culture and economy of 2050 than the independent bookseller in 1980 could have predicted that a company named Amazon would put him out of business by 2015.

So here’s my news: if the United States becomes a third-world nation (a distinct possibility), it will not be because of a failure in our technology, or even in our technological education. It will be because, in our headlong pursuit of what glitters, we have forgotten how to differentiate value from price: we have forgotten how be a free people. Citizenship — not merely in terms of law and government, but the whole spectrum of activities involved in evaluating and making decisions about what kind of people to be, collectively and individually — is not a STEM subject. Our ability to articulate and grasp values, and to make reasoned and well-informed decisions at the polls, in the workplace, and in our families, cannot be transmitted by a simple, repeatable process. Nor can achievement in citizenship be assessed simply, or, in the short term, accurately at all. The successes and failures of the polity as a whole, and of the citizens individually, will remain for the next generation to identify and evaluate — if we have left them tools equal to the task. Our human achievement cannot be measured by lines of code, by units of product off the assembly line, or by GNP. Our competence in the business of being human cannot be certified like competence in Java or Oracle (or, for that matter, plumbing). Even a success does not necessarily hold out much prospect of employment or material advantage, because that was never what it was about in the first place. It offers only the elusive hope that we will have spent our stock of days with meaning — measured not by our net worth when we die, but by what we have contributed when we’re alive. The questions we encounter in this arena are not new ones, but rather old ones. If we lose sight of them, however, we will have left every child behind, for technocracy can offer nothing to redirect our attention to what matters.

Is learning this material of compelling interest to the state? That depends on what you think the state is. The state as a bureaucratic organism is capable of getting along just fine with drones that don’t ask any inconvenient questions. We’re already well on the way to achieving that kind of state. Noam Chomsky, ever a firebrand and not a man with whom I invariably agree, trenchantly pointed out, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.” He’s right. If we are to become unfree people, it will be because we gave our freedom away in exchange for material security or some other ephemeral reward — an illusion of safety and welfare, and those same jobs that President Obama and Governor Scott have tacitly accepted as the chief — or perhaps the only — real objects of our educational system. Whatever lies outside that narrow band of approved material is an object of ridicule.

If the state is the people who make it up, the question is subtly but massively different. Real education may not be in the compelling interest of the state qua state, but it is in the compelling interest of the people. It’s the unique and unfathomably complex amalgam that each person forges out of personal reflection, of coming to understand one’s place in the family, in the nation, and in the world. It is not primarily practical, and we should eschew it altogether, if our highest goal were merely to get along materially. The only reason to value it is the belief that there is some meaning to life beyond one’s bank balance and material comfort. I cannot prove that there is, and the vocabulary of the market has done its best to be rid of the idea. But I will cling to it while I live, because I think it’s what makes that life worthwhile.

Technical skills — job skills of any sort — are means, among others, to the well-lived life. They are even useful means in their place, and everyone should become as competent as possible. But as they are means, they are definitionally not ends in themselves. They can be mistakenly viewed as ends in themselves, and sold to the credulous as such, but the traffic is fraudulent, and it corrupts the good that is being conveyed. Wherever that sale is going on, it’s because the real ends are being quietly bought up by those with the power to keep them out of our view in their own interest.

Approximately 1900 years ago, Tacitus wrote of a sea change in another civilization that had happened not by cataclysm but through inattention to what really mattered. Describing the state of Rome at the end of the reign of Augustus, he wrote: “At home all was calm. The officials carried the old names; the younger men had been born after the victory of Actium; most even of the elder generation, during the civil wars; few indeed were left who had seen the Republic. It was thus an altered world, and of the old, unspoilt Roman character not a trace lingered.” It takes but a single generation to forget the work of ages.

But perhaps that’s an old story, and terribly out of date. I teach Latin, Greek, literature, and history, after all.

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