STEM and History

In an excellent post, my friend Mark observes:

Aggravating matters, even if a prospective teacher did major in history in college, fewer of their professors were full-time history instructors than ever before, meaning that even the quality of the small minority of teachers who are history majors is going into decline! NCLB scorns history as a subject, so school districts across the nation will continue to starve it. Poorer districts will fire all the social studies teachers in coming years and parcel out the history sections to unwilling English teachers in order to save the jobs that will preserve reading scores (assuming those are making AYP in the first place).

Mark is right.

As someone who loves history, this is very sad.

As someone who is concerned with having a competitive educational system, this is fine.

Economic growth does not come from knowledge of history. If it did, Britain’s liberal arts and history-based curriculum would have allowed it to maintain hegemony in Europe through the 19th and 20th century. Insteda, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are the “STEM” of economic success.

george_washington_mount_rushmore

History is a sentiment. Engineering is a reality.

George Bush did America a great favor by creating No Child Left Behind, and scorning history in favor of classes that are the root of STEM. However, like all great moves the consequences of No Child Left Behind are largely invisible to the public.

If America does not wish to become a second-rate power, America must avoid the path of Britain and take up the road of Germany. America must continue to prioritize fields of knowledge that are practical, and recognize that the rest are an enjoyable possibility for those looking for leisure.

Mark concludes the part I excerpted by writing:

After that, the science teachers will start to get the axe.

Ultimately, science can be taught in an intensive, adolescent setting if reading skills exist. Humans are natural learners, but not natural readers. It is more important to teach children how to read and comprehend information than to teach them the sort of vague facts that comprise a school science curriculum. Indeed, it is more important to learn to read than to know the “scientific method,” because the scientific method is itself idealized and not particularly useful to know until one is mid-to-late career.

American schools would be well-served by ceasing to teach history entirely, putting up some photos of Washington and Lincoln and the wall, and using tha hour a day to focus on mathematics and statistics. Indeed, No Child Left Behind implicitly encourages this. Only the backward-looking state standards boards, and the sentiments of our people, keep us from doing this.

9 thoughts on “STEM and History”

  1. Hi Dan,

    Thank you for linking and extending the discussion.

    “Economic growth does not come from knowledge of history. If it did, Britain’s liberal arts and history-based curriculum would have allowed it to maintain hegemony in Europe through the 19th and 20th century. Insteda, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are the “STEM” of economic success”

    I am all for having a rigorous mathematics and science curriculum. I’m not seeing how that is incompatible with making other subjects similarly rigorous. Shortages of excellent math instructors are not related to history instruction but to more lucrative career opportunities existing for people with high levels of math skills.

    Britain’s long term decline had more to do with the adoption of protectionism advocated by Joseph Chamberlain circa 1895-1900 and the two world wars fought against the menace of German hegemony than education ( though structural political relations with the dominions within the Empireare another issue). Britain would have had to take radical steps with its empire in the 19th century to have maintained their lead over rising Germany and the United States in the early 20th.

    That said, Britain’s excellent educational system at the top tier did not maximize the population’s capacities for economic activity further down the food chain. As a small state governing a large empire, they needed to have done that.

    “Ultimately, science can be taught in an intensive, adolescent setting if reading skills exist. Humans are natural learners, but not natural readers. It is more important to teach children how to read and comprehend information than to teach them the sort of vague facts that comprise a school science curriculum”

    Reading is a critical skill set that underwrites a student’s ability to perform well in other subjects and learning to read is a complicated task involving a number of cognitive actions and developmental variables.

    Reading is an important priority for public schools but I do not see evidence that school systems as a whole have successfully dealt with with the least able 25-40 % of students in terms of acquiring basic, functional, literacy to a degree that this effort would justify hiring unqualified science teachers who promote misinformation. I am not seeing the connection in youir argument.

    If you are saying that strong reading skills will compensate for a lack of science and history instruction in the long term, that might be partially the case but the outcome will still not be as good as if students had competent instruction in all subjects. If you are saying that reading is such a priority that in zero sum fashion it systemically requires hiring incompetents in other subjects, I have to ask why there is a direct relationship between the two.

    Finally, from looking at the educated middle-classes in police states around the world, I am not convinced that minds trained by engineering programs bereft of any real humanities is a good idea. This dichotomy which regimes prefer because it keeps critical thinking to less “political” nonverbal reasoning heavy subjects seems to produce a large number of intolerant dogmatists once these students begin trying to understand politics in relative vacumn of knowledge. Hence the large number of engineers, doctors and technically trained fields among terrorist groups.

  2. Hey Mark,

    Thanks for the excellent comment.

    I am all for having a rigorous mathematics and science curriculum. I’m not seeing how that is incompatible with making other subjects similarly rigorous. Shortages of excellent math instructors are not related to history instruction but to more lucrative career opportunities existing for people with high levels of math skills.

    You are right, but there is an essential conflict. There is a set amount of time and resources that can be devoted to children’s education. Whether we would be better off shifting resources, to say, double the math instruction and no history instruction, is the question I’m considering. As someone who loves history (I purposefully paired this post with a review of two biographies [1]), I think the answer is yes.

    Britain’s long term decline had more to do with the adoption of protectionism advocated by Joseph Chamberlain circa 1895-1900 and the two world wars fought against the menace of German hegemony than education ( though structural political relations with the dominions within the Empireare another issue). Britain would have had to take radical steps with its empire in the 19th century to have maintained their lead over rising Germany and the United States in the early 20th.

    Certainly each country hobbled itself, and the protectionism detracted innovation. But so bad Britain’s liberal arts and history based curriculum. In less than a century the source of scientific innovation shifted from Britain to Germany (the Geiger counter, Roetgen’s discovery of x-rays, Braun’s invention of the CRT, etc). This was done in spite of an academy run on the Full Professor system which was hostile to innovation and dissent.

    That said, Britain’s excellent educational system at the top tier did not maximize the population’s capacities for economic activity further down the food chain. As a small state governing a large empire, they needed to have done that.

    I would disagree with part of this: that it had an excellent educational system at the top tier. Britain was good at training a small coiterie to administer India. It was good at producing lawyers. That may be about it.

    That’s a combination of imperial decline, which is what Britain out of its system.

    Reading is an important priority for public schools but I do not see evidence that school systems as a whole have successfully dealt with with the least able 25-40 % of students in terms of acquiring basic, functional, literacy to a degree that this effort would justify hiring unqualified science teachers who promote misinformation. I am not seeing the connection in youir argument.

    I am not sure schools teach anything worthwile science until 10th grade, and then only to a fraction of its student body. The science that is taught in schools is of the liberal arts variety, where a student may understand a useless scientific fact (the earth revolves around the sun, the names of the seas on the Moon, etc), that either (a) will never be used in that student’s life or (b) if it will be used, will be taught during hte first week of a real scientific training curriculum.

    So I’d be fine with disolving most of America’s public school science curriculum, and having mathematics or reading teachers work from books that use examples from the sciences.

    If you are saying that strong reading skills will compensate for a lack of science and history instruction in the long term, that might be partially the case but the outcome will still not be as good as if students had competent instruction in all subjects. If you are saying that reading is such a priority that in zero sum fashion it systemically requires hiring incompetents in other subjects, I have to ask why there is a direct relationship between the two.

    My point is less and more than that: there is little need to hire in other subjects.

    The whithering of non-NCLB classses we are seeing should be an intermediate step. It does few people any good to replace an acceptable but lackluster science curriculum with a non-existant one that takes up the same amount of time.

    Finally, from looking at the educated middle-classes in police states around the world, I am not convinced that minds trained by engineering programs bereft of any real humanities is a good idea. This dichotomy which regimes prefer because it keeps critical thinking to less “political” nonverbal reasoning heavy subjects seems to produce a large number of intolerant dogmatists once these students begin trying to understand politics in relative vacumn of knowledge. Hence the large number of engineers, doctors and technically trained fields among terrorist groups.

    All one needs to do is turn on MSNBC or FoxNews and see that we have plenty of dogmatists influencing our policies 😉

    Our difference from other systems are these: we can produce economic growth (unlike the middle east, so we don’t systematically channel the best & brighest into radicalism) and we have a Constitution that created gridlock (so we don’t have tyranny of authoritarian states).

    Our system works because of the desire of most factions to maximize power for themselves, not because of a reflective heroism among our political class.

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2009/09/04/reviews-of-zhou-enlai-the-last-perfect-revolutionary-by-gao-wenqian-and-prisoner-of-the-state-the-secret-journal-of-premier-zhao-ziyang-edited-by-bao-pu-renee-chiang-and-adi-ignatius.html

  3. Dan, I disagree with your premise but as usual, you pose an interesting argument. I will try to be brief.

    First as to the economics of available instructional time:

    “You are right, but there is an essential conflict. There is a set amount of time and resources that can be devoted to children’s education. Whether we would be better off shifting resources, to say, double the math instruction and no history instruction, is the question I’m considering”

    Generally, almost all public school students in a 7.5 hour day have around 40-50 minutes of mathematics instruction.. Some of them will also have 40-50 minutes of instruction in history/social science in years 6-12, but not all of them and not every year either, unless they opt to take social studies electives ( a minority). Arguably, an increase in math instruction would be beneficial but if so, the primary competitors for instructional time are not history classes but non- core academic courses and activities that compose at least *half* of a typical school day of every student (PE, study hall, homerooms, band lessons, driver’s ed, health etc.)

    Nor is that current amount of instructional time in terms of the school day or school year, or the standard high school master schedule anything but an arbitrary choice validated by tradition. Any of these could be changed.

    As to the substance of what I infer is a majority math curriculum that you favor:

    First, math teachers may experience greater systemic success in terms of student progress because, as a group, they are:

    a) partially, though not entirely, avoiding learning problems associated with students with poor reading skills ( the special ed student who is virtually illiterate but reasonably good at math is commonplace)

    b) are more likely to be qualified by education to teach their subjects than teachers of science or history.

    The answer to the disparity in relative performance is to hire qualified science and history teachers, not to replace them with more math instructors.

    Secondly, so heavy a math curriculum really works in favor of three groups, which combined amount to a modest minority of students:

    a) the intellectually gifted in nonverbal thinking who are effectively math prodigies capable of handling college or grad level math at young ages at an advanced, intense pace; our future reseasrch physicists, scientists and mathematicians.

    b) The bright and hard working “honor student who require a high level of proficiency in math skills as a precursor to work in difficult applied fields such as, say, chemical engineering.

    c) Our most remedial group, who need intense instruction and very low student to teacher ratios to master even rudimentary skills. RtI will actually create the program you desire for these students within the next 2-3 years.

    I’d guess these groups are no more than about 20 % of the student population, perhaps closer to 15%.

    For the broad majority, the amount of mathematics instruction you propose goes well beyond diminishing returns. They will never use it and are better off applying their time to learning a wider variety of skills or mastering content. Nor will students with a high level of verbal reasoning but comparatively weaker aptitude in nonverbal maximize their potential in a system where the hardest, most interesting concepts are expressed *numerically*.

    That there is not enough rigor in our math and reading instruction nationally is an argument to which I will assent. That the answer is a curriculum that runs to mostly math being the answer is contrary to the range of native abilities present in any representative student population. A niche group, sure but not as a universal curriculum.

  4. History was always one of my least-favorite subjects. So many useless dates; memorization, memorization, memorization. I am more interested in history the older I get — which I suspect is somehow related to the way family genealogies and family histories become more and more important for some people as they age.

    Here’s an interesting question: How are we to cram history, in any useful fashion, into a 40-50 min/day curriculum? The question turns on two observations:

    1. The further forward we move, the more history there is to teach, since history is always being made.

    2. The further forward we move, the more history there is to teach, because a) we are constantly revealing more and more of it through archeological etc. finds (leading to revisions….) and also b) nowadays our ability to store information and transfer said information is extreme.

    In short, seems to me that we face extreme difficulties vis-a-vis the subject of history. Interesting that Dan says, “History is a sentiment,” since, actually, having such a broad swath to cover requires bias for cutting out much of it, and this bias will depend on the teachers and schools and states deciding what is important and what is not important.

    Though I disliked history as a child, once I hit grade 10 or so I began to regret that the year always finished right about the time we reached circa 1964 in our history lessons. I would propose, if we are to largely eliminate history but not entirely eliminate it in our school systems, that we take up purely modern history, beginning around the 60’s or 70’s, after about grade 5. This incidentally would help for the pragmatic approach Dan suggests, since raw mathematics and even raw technology and science are relatively useless without context. So say that with 1960s+ the history lessons would focus on how the world has been changing ever more quickly w/ technology, with deep study into what has been happening, including covering recent (last few decades) advancements.

    This would give kids an arrow path for aligning their future aspirations.

  5. Incidentally, I suspect my own school’s aversion toward modern history resulted in a fear of stepping on the feet of the more conservative elements in our area. I.e., the more modern areas have political elements.

    I would add to the above considerations for why history is so difficult a subject in the lower grades, K-12, 3) this political element, and 4) in line with 1 & 2, the fact that the histories of other nations are beginning to come more into focus, greatly adding to the swath to be covered.

  6. Mark,

    Thanks for the reply!

    Don’t worry about a lack of brevitiy. Fascinating works rarely shoudl be brief!

    Arguably, an increase in math instruction would be beneficial but if so, the primary competitors for instructional time are not history classes but non- core academic courses and activities that compose at least *half* of a typical school day of every student (PE, study hall, homerooms, band lessons, driver’s ed, health etc.)

    This is true. When I hear my student’s concerns about NCLB, I see similar complaints from PE teachers, industrial tech teachers, art teachers, etc. While those fields are diverse, they are outside the scope of NCLB, and so are under time pressure.

    My affection for history, and the apparent utility of the “lessons of history,” makes me take the concerns of history teachers more seriously than those of other instructors, so my post focused on their field.

    First, math teachers may experience greater systemic success in terms of student progress because, as a group, they are:

    a) partially, though not entirely, avoiding learning problems associated with students with poor reading skills ( the special ed student who is virtually illiterate but reasonably good at math is commonplace)

    b) are more likely to be qualified by education to teach their subjects than teachers of science or history.

    The answer to the disparity in relative performance is to hire qualified science and history teachers, not to replace them with more math instructors.

    I certainly think one should be skeptical of claims that we have a particularly good math curriculum, because of the confounding factors you cite.

    However, we need a better math education, regardless of the sources of success we see in our current system. Therefore, while these points are important in putting the success of math educators in complex, they don’t argue against plusing-up our math education.

    Secondly, so heavy a math curriculum really works in favor of three groups, which combined amount to a modest minority of students:

    a) the intellectually gifted in nonverbal thinking who are effectively math prodigies capable of handling college or grad level math at young ages at an advanced, intense pace; our future reseasrch physicists, scientists and mathematicians.

    b) The bright and hard working “honor student who require a high level of proficiency in math skills as a precursor to work in difficult applied fields such as, say, chemical engineering.

    c) Our most remedial group, who need intense instruction and very low student to teacher ratios to master even rudimentary skills. RtI will actually create the program you desire for these students within the next 2-3 years.

    I’d guess these groups are no more than about 20 % of the student population, perhaps closer to 15%.

    For the broad majority, the amount of mathematics instruction you propose goes well beyond diminishing returns. They will never use it and are better off applying their time to learning a wider variety of skills or mastering content. Nor will students with a high level of verbal reasoning but comparatively weaker aptitude in nonverbal maximize their potential in a system where the hardest, most interesting concepts are expressed *numerically*.

    The concern about diminishing returns is important.

    By contrast, I think one economically reaches the point of diminishing returns in history education immediately, at least with respect to what is taught in schools. A general history curriculum has no economic value for the student, and while some fact may surendipitiously be useful, others may well have a time-waisting effect if they are learned.

    The function of history as a civic excersize, where the benefits are gained by the American nation and not particular individuals, is a fair point. I do not believe this is how history is taught, however.

    You mention three groups which would be helped by a better math education. Let me add a fourth: the general population of students. From finance, to ability to calculate personal risk, an inability to think mathematically profoundly hurts students.

    However let’s stick to the three groups you mention. America suffers a systemic, long-term, economic weakness from an ability to produce skilled professionals in any math-heavy area. We are great at producing lawyers and MBAs, and have been since the World War. However, our economy suffers from an inability to produce skilled professionals.

    This is something I see every day teaching. A great number of pre-service secondary teachers, for instance, are actually frustrated students in other fields. Math teachers wanted to be math professionals, shop teachers wanted to be engineers, but were unable to handle the curriculum. At the same time, it is difficult for schools to hire math teachers, because this subject is avoided by most teaching students.

    All economic growth comes at the margins, and here the marginal utility of greater math and reading ability is very high.

    That the answer is a curriculum that runs to mostly math being the answer is contrary to the range of native abilities present in any representative student population. A niche group, sure but not as a universal curriculum.

    I disagree here. While the form of mathematics learning may vary by future career (a carpenter would benefit much more from memorizing trig than knowing calculus, for instnace), the range of students who would enjoy marginal returns from more math is much greater than the range of students who would suffer marginal deficits from less history.

    Curtis,

    Thanks for the post!

    It seems you are eproposing replacing history with a form of current events curriculum. In many ways this would be useful. For instance, knowing the recent trajectory of computer technology, helath care debates, world politics, etc., probably would matter more than knowing that France and Britain were enemies during our Revolution. However, the drawback is that such teaching is even more political than history.

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