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.