Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Where Do the Bright Minds Go? An Epiphany…

This semester I am teaching a course for the Honors College. It is an introductory course on International Relations. For my non-American readers, Honors College is where they pool the bright students with high scores. In general, they have a separate dormitory, a lot of tailored support and a whole separate Dean to cater to the students’ needs.

My students mostly have pharmacy, biological & agricultural sciences, and engineering backgrounds. And did I mention, they are very bright.

In the last few years, I have been working at universities that had strong science and engineering departments. For the longest time, I thought this was a great thing!

The last university that I worked in Turkey was very strong in engineering, for which I was proud of. I still don’t know what exactly nano-technology means, but they were nice folks up there making cool graphics.

Here in the US, my university has strong pharmacy and Ag-Bio sciences programs. They go out of their way to attract students into STEM disciplines –basically, science and engineering programs. 

In the US, the economic recession is still hammering the job market. Therefore, there is a concerted effort to channel students into areas where they would have guaranteed employment. Nursing, engineering and other technical departments are having their heyday! Music and art history, not so much…

For the longest time, I though this would be a great thing: that we should encourage ‘good’ students to go into these ‘hard’ disciplines. That’s what the society needs, right?

However lately, I am beginning to question this approach.

So what are we doing at the moment? We are railroading all the bright minds into pre-med, biology, nursing and engineering. Essentially, we are skimming the top and placing these kids into technical fields. As overachievers, they take their responsibility very seriously and spend significant time and energy on math, biology, anatomy, chemistry and other such ‘hard’ courses.

I teach International Relations and Comparative Politics, which for these students mean ‘stuff that happens outside the US’. They are so solidly geared towards their professional careers that any such class in social sciences becomes a ‘distraction’ for them.

So what do we have in our equation: We have a pool of best and bright minds. We sort them into these technical, professional disciplines. We pump them up with the importance of STEM disciplines night and day, so they dedicate themselves and excel in their particular fields.

Yet, is this what higher education is all about? Is university just a bigger vocational school??

I think the academia and society in general are doing a huge disservice, by creating these seasonal fads in higher ed. For a while, it was finance. You had the best and brightest going into economics and business schools. Supposedly, they would graduate and instantly take up jobs with six figure salaries at Wall Street. Subprime crisis and the disgraceful collapse of the finance sector hopefully put the brakes on this a bit.

Similarly, there was the Law School fetishism. The best and the brightest would go to law school, pay an arm and a leg for tuition, and graduate with thousands of $s of student loans. But it was all worth it! Because they were going to land on six figure salaries in prestigious law firms.

Unfortunately, students soon realized that not all law graduates could become Ally McBeals. The job market for the law graduates saturated rather fast, and many students ended up saddled with huge student loans, doing clerical work for pitiful hourly wages.

Let me wrap up: I think the current hype about STEM areas will do us harm in the long run for at least three reasons:

1.     Eventually, we’ll have an over-supply problem in these technical areas. Hence, in the lung-run, this will be another self-defeating mission, much like the cases of finance and law.

2.     By treating the disciplines other than science and engineering as ‘second class’, we are undermining the principles of a liberal arts education. It was this liberal arts aspect of the US higher education that made it superior, compared to other countries, such as Germany, which is rather advanced in engineering and technical fields. We cannot have well-rounded, sharp and worldly citizens with critical thinking skills, by having them write lab reports only. A university degree should be much more than just a ticket to employment.

3.     Lastly, there might be significant opportunity costs for channeling all our best and the brightest into these technical areas. Speaking for my discipline, we still don’t have clear answers to some of the most critical questions in political science. What is the relationship between income distribution and democracy? How can political systems address the issues of justice, equity and efficiency simultaneously?  Is democracy exportable to the rest of the world? Maybe some of these students who are so eagerly channeled into STEM disciplines might have the answer, but we would never know…

I am not arguing that we should terminate the efforts to recruit more students into STEM disciplines. As long as the short fall in those areas continues, this is certainly a noble mission, especially when it encourages the recruitment of women and minority students.

But I think STEM support should not come at the expense of other areas, particularly the social sciences. We should not build structural barricades for good students that effectively steer them away from social sciences.

Skimming the top students and placing them into technical fields might give us top-notch nurses, doctors and civil engineers. But it would deprive us of top-notch writers, diplomats, and political leaders.

Given the way world affairs is unfolding lately (Syria about to explode, Iran brewing nukes, Arab Spring spinning out of control, Europeans agonizing over self-inflicted wounds, China being a Pandora’s box, etc, etc) we do need the best and the brightest as leaders and diplomats.

Wishing you all brilliant veterinarians and political leaders,

The STEM-wary Academic Mommy

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