Canada Markets closed

Stem gets a lot of headlines in education circles. But it's not a silver bullet

‘There is an inherent neoliberalism in reframing educational goals exclusively in terms of what’s likely to lead to secure employment’ Photograph: David Davies/PA

When politicians, business leaders and policy wonks talk about the educating for the future, there’s a good chance they’re going to spend a lot of time talking in acronyms – or rather, one particular acronym: Stem.

Whether it’s teaching coding in schools, designing education for a future in which robotics and human-robot interaction will be critical, or addressing issues of social justice and diversity in the applied sciences, Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) is getting a lot of headlines in education circles.

Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. The World Economic Forum claims we’re living in the fourth industrial revolution, technological development is moving faster than it ever has, and technology is being posited as part of the solution to any range of pressing human issues – from climate change to corruption.

Although economic predictions around automation and mechanisation vary, the general consensus is that a number of jobs we are training people for now – particularly those still in school – may not exist by the time they’re old enough to take on those roles. If there are going to be jobs in coding, it makes sense to teach students to code.

I’m often asked by students considering philosophy whether they should bother, and what job prospects await them at the end

However, the feverish drive for more Stem in schools and more people in Stem generates risks that we should bear in mind. There is an inherent neoliberalism in reframing educational goals exclusively in terms of what’s likely to lead to secure employment. Educating people for employment is likely to provide them with skills and knowledge, but when education is restricted to mere job training, we risk closing students’ minds to matters that might not translate into employability.

I’ve built my entire career around philosophy, which makes me the polar opposite of the “education for jobs” approach, but the pressure to be “job-ready” still weighed heavy on my mind during my studies. How would I find work as a philosopher? What would I do with what I’ve learned? Today, I’m often asked by students considering philosophy whether they should bother, and what job prospects await them at the end.

It’s a valid question – as much as they might not like it, philosophers (like all academics) have to live in the real world. And with the glut of PhDs, the casualisation of academia and dwindling funding for the humanities (thanks, Stem), means many academics with PhDs are living below the poverty line. But if the solution to this problem must be to shift people away from the humanities and into more immediately employable disciplines, we’ll have lost something essential.

That’s because alongside – in fact, prior to, economic utility – education is meant to be formative. It’s meant to help us become the types of people we ought to be: equipped to solve the problems we might face, able to live well with others and prepared to understand and make sense of the reality in which we find ourselves.

Stem and all it offers can’t alone provide that kind of education. And people with cutting edge knowledge and technical skill can’t address the array of burning issues we face today and are likely to pass on to generations to come. In fact, Stem alone risks exacerbating them.

If you’re not convinced, look no further than Silicon Valley. A decade after tech companies started spending obscene amounts of money competing for the brightest technical minds (and still do), they are now in the market for philosophers, sociologists and ethicists to help them move slower and fix things.

There’s no question the people now working in tech companies around the world chose a highly lucrative and employable profession to enter into. But what’s coming under scrutiny now is whether a technology-intensive education system left them equipped to do the jobs they’re now facing. How do social platforms balance free speech and the need to protect vulnerable populations from harmful and hateful discourse? That’s a moral and political question – answering it well requires a broader sense of the world and its complexity. It requires the kind of thinking the humanities is adept at providing.

As the meme goes, we now hold infinitely more processing power in our hands than it took to land a man on the moon, and we use it to watch cat videos. Better technology isn’t a silver bullet. Climate change action isn’t stagnating because we don’t have scientific solutions; the Cambridge Analytica scandal was as much a failure of moral imagination as it was of cybersecurity protocols.

The significance of the data being collected and the ad targeting tools being designed simply wasn’t considered in the way it should have been. Why? There are probably plenty of reasons, but I’m beginning to feel that one of them is a dulling of some of the essential components of moral and political thinking.

If education is going to be any kind of antidote to the maladies of our time, it needs to be about more than skills and economic utility. We need to learn to ask moral questions before we ask technical ones. This involves a level of training and skill, but it also involves a set of character traits inclined toward thinking beyond ourselves and accepting our connections and obligations to others.

This won’t come from Stem; it’ll come from the same places it’s always come from: human interaction, storytelling, curious inquiry into the nature of things, and all the evaluative skills – the humanities.

• Matt Beard has written The Short & Curly Guide to Life, co-authored by Kyla Slaven, which is based on the ABC podcast Short & Curly