Friday, October 8, 2010

Popular vs. Unpopular School Subjects

Lately I've been thinking about why exactly the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects are unpopular.  The usual explanation is that they're harder than other fields.  Undoubtedly this is true, but it doesn't get at exactly why they are considered so hard, and why other fields haven't simply been concentrated so much that they equal STEM in difficulty.  It is conceivable, though not likely, that a sociology course could be graded as harshly as a STEM class.  Something else must also be a factor.

The next thought was: NUMBERS.  All the STEM fields are full of them.  Numbers are dry and not particularly laden with sex, violence, or emotion.  Fairly easy fields, like accounting, are full of numbers and they aren't very popular either.

Thinking back to college, I thought of another very unpopular field: logic.  Logic, in a way, is like math without the numbers.  So perhaps the logical thinking that is the underlying basis of math, engineering, symbolic logic, accounting, and many sciences is what causes people to dislike these fields.

Then I thought back to a demand that students always made in junior high and high school: that social studies and history teachers assure us we would never have to "memorize" dates.  Numbers again, but not really logic.  Something about learning dates would have sucked out all the (very limited) pleasure history could give the ordinary student.  One teachers assured us that we wouldn't have to learn dates, only to keep events in their proper sequence.  If you think the Thirty Years' War happened before Luther nailed his demands to the door of the church, you're simply wrong.

Then it hit me: any field in which you can be simply wrong is unpopular.  The reason social sciences are graded so much less harshly than STEM is that it is much easier for lazy and uncurious students to answer every question in generalities of marginally-acceptable grammar and thereby squeak by.  The notion that, while books may teach a certain answer to a history / social studies question, you can come up with the "real" answer on your own, gives license to every sophomore to give a postmodern (easy) answer to every question and expect praise in return.  (This is undoubtedly why so many young people have told me with a proud grin that "Hitler wasn't really a socialist" - they liked socialists and disliked Hitler, so they were "really" opposites.)

STEM fields could have been dumbed down to equal the social sciences, but they weren't, because even the squishiest hippy could stick by simply wrong in the face of the outraged reaction of a meta-hippy student (as lampooned wonderfully by Trudeau in cartoon recalled on p. 6 of this newsletter).  Eventually the students who were most allergic to right-and-wrong answer fields learned to avoid STEM entirely, and noted that they became cooler by doing so.  Then America became deindustrialized, the trade deficit ballooned, etc.

ADDENDUM: Ilkka has an article at The Fourth Checkraise on a similar subject.

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