STEM: it’s the new quadrivium for the modern age. The ancient subjects of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy gathered under the great umbrella of Math, and the fourth pillar of music, mathematics in application, now substituted in triplicate by Science, Technology and Engineering.
While the US Department of Education site on STEM describes the subjects positively as “springboards for careers,” Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education in Britain, put it more starkly: studying anything else is just a bad idea. Her statement contradicted her normal speaking points and those of her government, but in the larger context it’s challenging not to see the remark as a Freudian glimmer of truth. Morgan’s comment exposes the new philosophical outlook on the very purpose of education, and the very dark road that lies ahead.
First to the road behind, though. Public education is a fairly recent idea, a product of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the 1800s, education was largely pay-to-play, and school was a cash-up-front proposition. Records from the late 1700s in Britain show that prices for schooling depended largely on the employability of what was taught. Literacy was relatively affordable, but the big ticket item was numeracy, particularly accounting skills. (Look at the difference in the price tag of an MBA or Law degree today at public institutions. Not much has changed.)
The 1800s marked the start of a shift towards public education, but the roots are predictably ignoble – the economic self-interests of adults and politicians. When mechanization of industry reduced the need for brute force physical labour, factory owners discovered they could save on wages by employing children to operate machinery. Faced with the prospect of mass adult unemployment, British legislators of the early 19th Century reacted by dispossessing the already-disenfranchised youth, but in a rare act of prescience also mandated that the factories take responsibility for the education of the children of workers, lest the streets be swamped by hordes of newly-unemployed and completely unsupervised pre-adolescents. Yes, the roots of public education are the same “keeping them off the streets” argument used by Sistema proponents today.
It’s not a distinguishing history, but for those hoping that the United States would act with greater altruism, further disappointment awaits. It would take another one hundred years, and a similar economic and employment crisis in the form of the Great Depression, for child labour to be brought to an end legislatively on the other side of the Atlantic, with exemptions still remaining for the children of farmers. Again, this was purely economic self-interest on the parts of adults, and re-election interests on the part of politicians. Jobs for some adults, free labour for others. It doesn’t seem to matter that the lack of protection for children in the agricultural sectors leads to the death of roughly 100 children every year (79% of all work-related deaths for those 10 or younger, diminishing to a still-outrageous 60% for those 16 and under.) Farmers have successfully defended their right to endanger their children for almost 100 years now. The children can’t vote, after all, but the farmers do.
Gradually a humanist, and finally economic argument for public education emerged, although not necessarily in parallel. In the 1800s some Industrialists like Robert Owen flirted with the scandalous, dangerous idea that a happy, healthy, well-fed, and well-educated workforce would be more productive than starving slum tenants dying from tuberculosis. Despite the success of the pilot site he founded in Scotland, the concept didn’t catch on quickly. It would take until the 1960s in Britain for the economic rationale for public education to be formally articulated, in a study commissioned from a leading economist, Lord Lionel Robbins. His report to Parliament, restricted to post-secondary studies, was that it was in the express economic interests of the nation to have a well-educated population, and the return on state investment would be repaid through the increased income tax generated.
That road behind looks a great deal like the road ahead. Education in the modern era has only ever served the political, and later economic interests of the state. As the privatization of education continues, as the arts are increasingly marginalized within school systems, as the world reverts to the pay-to-play model, it requires no great leap of imagination to envision a nation in which governments only support those studies that lead to jobs they deem desirable or useful. It’s already happening. This is the ultimate extension of a perverse logic in which all actions are justified solely through the lens of fiscal investment and return. This is the perverse logic of a world in which unprecedented wealth generation goes hand in hand with governmental austerity. This is the perverse logic of the world of STEM.
Next time: a personal story. And an F-bomb.