the uncomfortable importance of being a star

Just to offer a brief followup to my recent piece on the myth of a STEM shortage, I want to focus a bit more on the uncontroversial value of being a star. I think that maybe the essential point is the one my engineer friend was making: companies may be hungry for STEM workers, but if so, they are hungry for a small number of the highest achievers from prestigious programs. The numbers simply do not show anything like a broad shortage of STEM majors in the labor market, but I’m very willing to concede that there are firms who feel that they have trouble filling certain positions. My guess is that this is an example of artificial scarcity: they’ve set the bar so high that they find there’s few people who can clear it. And I think that they take a kind of pride in that. Saying “our standards are so high we can’t fill all of our positions” is exactly the kind of chest-beating that is popular in tech culture, in startup culture.

Now some of the people who claim a STEM shortage might argue that this is the point. “We should be producing more STEM stars! We should have higher standards so that we can fill these positions and give all of our young people access to the good life.” But there are certain unalterable problems with that. The first is that “star” is a relative term. You might raise the average or the ceiling, but in either case, companies are still going to fight over a certain percentage near the top. Part of the problem with the notion of education as a cure for all of our social and economic ills is the willful avoidance of the fact that social sorting is almost always about relative position, not absolute. I find it profoundly naive to see companies like Google and Facebook as merely being interested in hiring people with a certain skill set, regardless of how well those people perform relative to others. So you see the essential problem: when everybody wants to hire the same 10% of workers, the rewards for those who can make it up there are great, but from a societal standpoint, it’s a zero sum game.

And that brings us to the second problem: not everybody can make the top 10%. That’s true in terms of the nature of percentages, of course, but it’s also true in terms of human ability. This is a point that is at once something most people believe to be true in their day-to-day lives, and yet is also one of the most controversial things I consistently argue: human beings are substantially unequal in their abilities, thanks to a variety of factors that are largely out of their control, and education has never been demonstrated to be capable of eliminating that inequality. In my “day job,” I read pedagogical and educational research. In my self-destructive online nattering, I read and debate political debates about educational policy. In both cases, it is truly remarkable how rarely people discuss the bare fact that human beings do not possess equal ability. You can read thousands and thousands of words online about educational policy without once encountering an admission that not everyone can become an intellectual or educational star. The admixture of variables that contribute to this inequality are controversial, but I cannot take seriously arguments that do not concede its existence. Yet there’s this big hole in our educational debate. Liberals don’t want to admit to it because they have confused the equal dignity and value of all people with equal ability. Conservatives don’t want to admit to it because they are invested in bootstraps mythology and because education has become the cudgel with which they beat on unions and teachers. Yet I’m willing to bet that most everyone, when operating outside of the political and intellectual space of debate, operates in the world as if it were plainly true, that different people have different aptitudes for certain intellectual tasks.

The consequences for this particular argument are clear. The argument that there is a STEM shortage, after all, is not merely that a shortage exists, but that it is both to the benefit of our economy and to our students if they go into STEM fields. But in a context where individual students are always going to be competing with each other for the same jobs, in fields where the drive to automate and cut labor costs is almost existential, and in a world where human beings are substantially unequal in their abilities, majoring in a STEM field is in no way a guarantee of employment or material security. Yes, it’s great to have an engineering degree from MIT. But the whole point of MIT is that they exclude the vast majority of people from attending. That’s as much of a reason these firms want to hire MIT students as the actual education. Meanwhile, the notion that the average student from an uncompetitive state school (like the one I went to) will reap an economic benefit from getting a STEM degree as opposed to something they actually want to study remains utterly unproven.

I think this discussion is important because it points to a basic contradiction within our educational philosophy: as a society, we imagine education both as the means through which we can elevate essentially all of our people into better quality of life– and at the same time, as a sorting system for identifying our most talented and deserving. Education is cast both as an equalizer and as a stratifier. That tension is palpable at college campuses, given two of our central anxieties: we are worried both about the high number of people who fail out of school and about grade inflation. We are worried that college is both too hard and too easy. That’s education, writ large, a series of controversies driven by incompatible goals. This basic, non-negotiably paradoxical character is a major source of the dysfunction of our educational debates, and no real progress can be made until we acknowledge it.

The uncomfortable reality that our political commentators and our people must be forced to face is that we cannot simultaneously pursue reward for those who best succeed in competitive educational and professional systems and work for equality at the same time. It is either the “meritocracy” or higher standards of living for everyone. We cannot have both.

I have, in the past, been accused of being an “edunihilist” because of my pessimistic take on the power of education to solve social problems and because I know that not all students are of equal ability. On the contrary: I believe very strongly that everyone can learn and have their lives deeply enriched through attending school. I have taught students at the elementary, middle school, high school, and college levels. I have taught students in special education and in mainstream. I have taught private school kids and public. I have taught stars and I have taught struggling students. In each and every case, I have found value and growth. What I have not found, and what the empirical literature has not found, is that every student can be made to succeed on the standardized tests and limited definitions of achievement that the forces of education privatization are pushing relentlessly. In a world where we define education broadly and look for growth and improvement that aren’t tied to capitalist interests, there is reason for hope. In a world where we think of education as the effort to achieve constant improvement for everyone on standardized tests, there is no such hope.

If that sounds cruel, I would agree. I would also argue that this is the central reason for why we should abandon the myth of meritocracy altogether. The playing field is not level, it never will be, and the pretense that we can make it so hurts far more than it helps. It’s time to separate people’s material security from our flawed perception of their merit once and for all.

7 Comments

  1. these myths you’re talking about (equality. bootstraps. the american dream!) are very powerful things. I hardly know how to extricate myself from them. all of this reminds me of the saying (sometimes weirdly attributed to Einstein) about fish climbing trees. the question I’ve been puzzling with all semester picks apart the whole metaphor (though maybe, in the end, it is a stupid metaphor–who knows). who are the fish? who are the monkeys? what if there are also giraffes and slugs and kangaroos out there? how do we tell the difference? what should we ask the fish to do instead? defining success individually for every single different person sounds great… but how?

  2. Parts of your article disagree some with my lived experience. I think you do bring an impressive amount of evidence that does a good job of refuting the idea of shortage. I similarly have no trouble buying the star hypothesis.

    However, I have had friends in their late twenties and early thirties that are switching to more computer science oriented skill-sets (out of law or int’l relations) and have had an easier time getting jobs at higher salaries. It certainly is not a panacea, but I think I would defend the idea that comp. sci. is generally speaking a higher demand sector. I know I look for that skill set when picking candidates, although anyone fi we’d hire for the research part of the think tank would presumably count as someone employed out of field. I think the wage figures you cite support that idea, although the higher 2010 employment rate struck me by surprise. That said, many of my circle, even the transfers, may fit in various unrepresentative star categories.

    So, I’d argue that comp. sci. at least is generally a higher demand skill set and probably can give an edge in some fields outside of IT. I would agree with you that this does not constitute a shortage. More important, I’d agree with that the field isn’t a magic ticket out of the inequality and suckiness of the present economy.

  3. This was a good post, and a good follow-up to that essay on the myth of the STEM shortage.

    So you see the essential problem: when everybody wants to hire the same 10% of workers, the rewards for those who can make it up there are great, but from a societal standpoint, it’s a zero sum game.

    It also leads to some perverse consequences. There was an interesting Quora discussion where the question was, “What is the biggest negative about working at google?”, and it was that the company horded all these top-level people without necessarily having any ability to fully utilize their capabilities. It was done for strategic reasons – denying other companies these “stars” – and so you had a bunch of “stars” who were stuck doing things way below their talents. You can’t really feel too sorry for them considering how well they were being compensated, but it’s still perverse.

    Yet I’m willing to bet that most everyone, when operating outside of the political and intellectual space of debate, operates in the world as if it were plainly true, that different people have different aptitudes for certain intellectual tasks.

    I think you can be legitimately concerned that people merely experiencing some struggle with understanding something might interpret this as meaning that they’re just “not good at it” and give up, when it might mean that making progress in understanding it simply requires more effort for everyone trying it. Noah Smith and Miles Kimball talking about the myth of being “good/bad at math” comes to mind – I don’t agree with everything they say, but they do make a good argument.

    It’s difficult. How do you tell people when to stop bashing their heads trying to grasp something they don’t have the aptitude for but desperately want to understand, without discouraging them in general from making progress in other areas?

  4. You know, Greg, I don’t dispute your lived experience at all. What I’d guess is that you’re exposed to an artificially restricted range of talented people. You’ve got to take this from my perspective: I’m constantly interacting with people on this issue who say “I’m in such-and-such industry and there’s a shortage.” On the other hand, I have responsibly-generated empirical data. You can understand why I have to side the way that I do.

  5. This reminds me very much of the ongoing decline in law school applications. As someone who was very interested in attending law school after graduation, the reality of the special snowflake syndrome (to borrow Campos) made me reevaluate the whole process, and to a greater degree the higher education system in general. The only people receiving money to attend are the best credentialed, and therefore more likely to be near the top of their class and therefore most likely to actually attain employment that could pay off the law school debts that were shouldered by their unemployed peers.

    This is really the manifestation of the meritocratic long con that would leave millions reevaluating the institutions responsible if they weren’t preoccupied playing the real life version of the Hunger Games.

    1. First, thanks Freddie for the reply. I definitely buy that there isn’t a shortage.

      However, I’d argue that the law school analogy doesn’t fit in a key way. A state school, community college, or even autodidactic education in programming has some benefit in a way that a non-first tier law degree does not. Programming is a bit like foreign language education in that way in my experience. For some of the jobs, most certainly not the ones that are claiming shortages but the more workaday “we need a website for our small company” stuff, it’s easy enough to judge someone based on their portfolio. I got my degree at UMCP and I definitely tell people that it was good enough.

      I think the big difference is law is often a zero sum field in a way similar to finance. By comparison, programmers, like electricians in an environment where many of the benefits of electricity had not been achieved, can even create more jobs for one another. Have the second best law team, you’re more likely to lose, have the second best programming team, you’ve still got a new accounting system. (We may be undermining other jobs by automation though, but that’s a different fight)

      That said, I think I’ll try to be more circumspect in job advice (when asked! I don’t go out badgering people, let alone calling for cutting of humanities training). Probably if someone has enough aptitude to take on C.S., even mid-career, they don’t need any encouragement so much as just practical help figuring out how to do it without taking on debt.

      Much of the evidence in the piece seems to indicate that at best we’re at late 90s level in Comp Sci. which isn’t a comparatively bad place to be these days, but on the other hand I’ve definitely been noticing a secular increase in the level of skill of applicants, so that may be why the unemployment rate news shouldn’t have caught me by surprise.

      More to the point, I will try to start STEM shortage debunking in much the same way I try to deficit scold debunk and social security crisis debunk.

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