“There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”
— Maria, from the film “Metropolis” (1927)
“Do what you love and success will follow.” That is the standard advice of career self-help books. But too few students are inspired to love science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM”), and the students most likely to major in non-STEM fields, are the students who are least able to afford it. But top technologists, most of whom are not African American or Latino, have risen through the ranks mastering both STEM and non-STEM disciplines.
The U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Commerce reported last week that America’s poverty rate was increasing at an alarming rate. The overall poverty rate jumped from 14.3 percent in 2009 to 15.1 percent in 2010. A whopping 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics are now living below the poverty line, compared to just 9.9 percent of whites.
STEM education is a potential way out of poverty for many of the nation’s poorest students. Entry-level earnings for top-flight STEM grads can be six-figures or higher. Glassdoor, a site that crowdsources data on working conditions at different companies, reports that the average starting salary for software engineers in Silicon Valley is $98,000. For Google, the starting rate for software engineers can be upwards of $151,000. These facts underscore the need to improve STEM education in low-income school districts, which serve disproportionately high numbers of African Americans and Hispanics and which are chronically in want of the best STEM teachers.
Few African Americans and Hispanics are choosing to go to college at all or, if they do decide to attend, do not major in STEM fields. The Department of Commerce reported last week that, in 2009, just 22 percent of non-Hispanic blacks and 14 percent of Hispanics hold bachelor’s degrees, compared to 54 percent of Asians and 35 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Of these, just 17 percent of black, non-Hispanic college graduates and 21 percent of Hispanic graduates majored in STEM disciplines, compared to 22 percent of white, non-Hispanic graduates and 43 percent of Asian, non-Hispanic graduates.
Unpaid internships are a backstop for non-STEM graduates unable to find work in a job market that demands STEM skills. These internships are fine for college graduates with families who can sustain them. But for non-STEM graduates from poorer families, unpaid internships are much less of an option. This makes low-income, non-STEM students more susceptible to being underemployed upon graduation.
Still, if educators push students too hard to be proficient in STEM, to the exclusion of the arts and other non-STEM disciplines, there is a risk that these students will be trained to be automatons, rather than the world’s most sought-after innovators.
Steven Levy’s book In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives” describes a corporate culture that celebrates quantitative geniuses while at the same time pushes employees to be creative and inventive. Levy depicts Google co-founder Sergey Brin as quantitatively brilliant but more interested in taking courses in swimming and gymnastics than in earning a Ph.D. in computer science. Levy also describes Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of location and local services, who, before entering Stanford University, was not only a computer whiz but also an accomplished ballerina.
Many of the nation’s public schools are not preparing students for innovative settings like Stanford and Google’s. To satisfy No Child Left Behind Act testing benchmarks, public schools downplay pedagogy and simply “teach to the test.” These policies have been combined with drastic cuts to arts education.
The National Endowment for the Arts reported earlier this year that minority students were hit hardest by cuts to arts education. The NEA report revealed that only 26 percent of African Americans between 18 and 24 reported receiving any arts education during childhood. This reflects a sharp decline from 51 percent in 1982. For Hispanics, the percentage of respondents who received any arts education during childhood plummeted from 47 percent in 1982 to 28 percent in 2008. On the other hand, the number of whites reporting they received arts education dropped only slightly, from 59.2 percent in 1982 to 57.9 percent in 2008.
To prepare African American and Hispanic students for the jobs of the future, it is simply not acceptable for policymakers to focus solely on improving STEM education. There is no reason why so many students should be trained to be mere cogs in the wheel, rather than the innovators our country desperately needs.