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The Philistine Factory

STEM to stern, education reformers fail students’ humanity
Art for The Philistine Factory.


“The life of observation, meditation, cogitation, and speculation pursued as an end in itself is the proper life of man. From reason moreover proceeds the proper control of the lower elements of human nature—the appetites and the active, motor, impulses.”

John Dewey, Democracy and Education

Our epistemologically challenged, boastfully unlettered new president has, not surprisingly, thrown didactic statesmanship out the window. Donald Trump’s possible choice to lead a commission on vaccine safety is a thoroughly discredited crank who insists on denying the undeniable safety of life-saving vaccines; and his appointment to head up a higher-education commission is Jerry Falwell Jr., who, like Trump himself, oversees a “university” that purveys plain falsehoods.[*] 

Meanwhile, Trump seems to have adopted an education “reform” wish list of privatization, union busting, and more standardized testing. To oversee these policies, he has appointed the heiress dilettante Betsy DeVos, whose education-policy track record includes a failed charter school effort in Michigan and not much else. DeVos is so unprecedentedly unqualified that two Republican senators broke rank to oppose her, forcing Vice President Mike Pence to cast a tiebreaking vote—the first ever for a cabinet nominee.

One plank in the Republican education-policy platform is student-loan privatization, even though most economists doubt that “liberalizing” this market would do any good. If private banks are brought into the process of granting student loans, they will have an incentive to favor certain academic majors over others. Any course of study that does not promise easy employment and a high salary after graduation will be denied financing, or treated as a subprime, punitively high-interest loan. This will, no doubt, have the desired effect of homogenizing the future labor force to fit American corporations’ standardized needs.

As it happens, the Democrats’ ultimate goal for education in recent years has amounted to the same thing. To the extent that Hillary Clinton offered specific education policy proposals in the 2016 election, she did so only in the context of boosting workforce competence and productivity. The sole purpose of education, apparently, is to enable “young people from everywhere . . . to be prepared to compete for those jobs.”

On her campaign website, Clinton praised new technologies that have created “lucrative new industries and countless high-paying jobs,” and she called for federal education grants to be funneled toward “computer science instruction and lesson programs that improve student achievement or increase college enrollment and completion in [computer science education] fields.” At no point does her (still available) plan mention the words “art,” “literature,” “reading,” “critical thinking,” or even “knowledge.” Her campaign did not frame education as a worthwhile endeavor for its own sake.

This is in keeping with the current, bipartisan received wisdom, which treats both K-12 and higher education as nothing more than economic inputs for future products and services. Clinton’s not-so-implicit message to American youths was that they must excel in math and science and learn to code, or they can forget about ever having a “good job” when they grow up.

The current, bipartisan received wisdom treats education as nothing more than economic input for future products and services.

With such messages raining down from the mountaintop, it is little wonder that the percentage of college freshman who say they are attending college in order to become “very well off financially” has steadily increased from 47 percent in 1975 to 82 percent in 2015. Then again, this is nothing new. As John Dewey pointed out, “professional and industrial education” is what the ancient Greeks administered to the “servile” classes, while the ruling class immersed itself in the liberal arts.

This is not to single out Clinton, who nevertheless would have been far better for American education than Trump. But if the Democrats are now conducting an election post mortem, they should consider taking a new approach to education, first by rejecting the ideology that treats schools as nothing more than the engines of consumer capitalism. Democrats could then furnish voters with an alternative vision for society—one where people have opportunities to define personal fulfillment for themselves and are not assigned personal aspirations by the state.

Of course, Americans have had a “feverish enthusiasm” for material gain at least since Tocqueville wrote those words; and some level of acquisitiveness and status-seeking is innate in humankind. But the extent to which Americans prioritize materialistic goals—possessions, status, popularity—above and at the expense of other pursuits—personal relationships, civic engagement—has increased in recent decades. According to Tim Kasser, who studies trends in materialism, this value change is “detrimental for people’s financial and consumption behavior, interpersonal relationships, treatment of our planet, work and educational motivation, and personal well-being.”

Social scientists measure trends in changing values by looking at the responses, over many years, to questionnaires such as Kasser and Richard M. Ryan’s Aspiration Index, and the Monitoring the Future survey, which asks high-school seniors questions such as “how important is it for you to have a job which provides you with a chance to earn a good deal of money?”

In one study, Kasser and Shivani Khanna found that more materialistic respondents also tend to affirm statements such as “I’m less concerned with what work I do than what I get for it.” Under our consummately materialist political consensus, this statement could come to describe an ever-larger portion of the employed labor force, as more art and history majors feel the pressure to instead pursue engineering, computer science, or—god help us—an MBA.

When I asked Kasser about the consensus view of education as a means to remunerative employment, he said, “Our research shows that the more people are exposed to models of materialism, the more likely they are to take on materialistic values themselves.” What’s more, he pointed out that “just hearing an administrator or politician frame education in this manner is likely to activate materialistic values in individuals, thereby strengthening them.”

According to Kasser, a “do this and you can make money” framework “inculcates an extrinsic motivation for education.” In social psychology, there is a key distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. The latter describes action taken for its own sake, because doing so is meaningful or self-fulfilling; the former describes when someone is prompted to action by an external reward or punishment, not unlike Pavlov’s dogs.

Unfortunately, extrinsic motivation tends to spoil things. In his 2002 book The High Price of Materialism, Kasser cites studies demonstrating that even when people are rewarded for engaging in activities that they enjoy doing anyway, their motivation to continue in those activities actually decreases. This also happens in school. Students who study a subject because it will be profitable down the road will generally suffer from “decreased depth of processing, persistence, and performance,” as opposed to students who are working with genuine interest on a self-selected topic.

But obsessing over STEM education and career preparation will not just pressure students into unfulfilling academic experiences; it will also make them into “less capable citizens who are less able to adjust to changes in the world of work,” writes Wesleyan University President Michael Roth in Beyond the University, a defense of the liberal arts. In fact, in Rise of the Robots, software developer and author Martin Ford demonstrates that, “The widely held belief that a degree in engineering or computer science guarantees a job is largely a myth.” In reality, computer programming and other information-technology professions have, since the 1990s, been heavily automated or offshored (the usual precursor to automation).

Already in 2013, the Economic Policy Institute had found that, “For every two students that U.S. colleges graduate with STEM degrees, only one is hired into a STEM job.” And with the emergence of demiurgic technologies from machine learning to algorithms that rewrite themselves, countless other professions—and their attendant skill sets—will soon become obsolete. Cloud-based software, Ford writes, “will eventually be poised to invade virtually every workplace and swallow up nearly any white-collar job that involves sitting in front of a computer manipulating information.” Oxford philosopher Luciano Floridi echoes this, and predicts that, “Any job in which people serve as an interface—between, say . . . documents in different languages, ingredients and a finished dish, or symptoms and a corresponding disease—is now at risk.”

Meanwhile, companies such as Facebook, Apple, and Google now employ only a fraction of the number of workers that manufacturers once did before they themselves underwent full-scale automation. At the current rate, education and hard work will not help workers “compete for those jobs” in the future; only dumb luck and privilege will, making today’s conventional wisdom especially tragic for the underprivileged students who may have had a chance to explore their real interests in less “practical” fields.

To be sure, past periods of wide-scale technological disruption have given rise to new forms of work; but Ford argues that “this time is different.” Various trends, such as the long-term decline in labor-force participation, suggest that he may be right. And even tech boosters seem to condition their optimism on the prospect that Silicon Valley firms will only “invent complements, not substitute(s) for labor,” when they currently have few incentives to do so.

In Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut’s prescient 1952 account of a fully automated society where masses of obsolete workers either join the army or mill around performing unnecessary tasks, one character laments the “damn hierarchy that measures men against machines,” and observes that, “It’s a pretty unimpressive kind of man that comes out on top.”

If there is any possibility that our future will look like the vapid scenario Vonnegut predicted, a generation that has been primed for materialistic competitiveness—rather than cooperation and intrinsically motivated self-fulfillment—will not have been well served. Kasser says highly materialistic people are “less concerned about the egalitarian aspects of democracy.” That’s too bad; democracy may be all that we have left.


[*] Falwell is the president of Liberty University, whose official motto is “Knowledge Aflame.” One must assume that this is a reference to the biblical “burning bush,” and not a nod to book burning.