A panel at a national meeting of historians I attended was devoted to the relation between the study of history and STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. One speaker explained that practical skills were widespread early in our history. Those skills, like surveying, sailing, or building canals, required both hands-on skills and the ability to perform calculations and experiment. American surveyors, navigators and builders were doing what we now call science and math, though they rarely got the credit. One surveyor wrote to a Frenchman around 1814 that no one was paying for astronomy, and no one was paying him for his astronomical investigations and calculations. But the speaker then pointed out that this gentleman was in fact being paid by the government for surveying and that his surveys required the astronomical observations he was making. He was doing the work, though not being recognized for it as his French friend would have been.
Because practical, mathematical and scientific skills were very widespread early in our history, and much less broadly distributed in Europe, the U.S. leapt into the scientific revolution, and left most of Europe far behind.
Skip to the present. One of the speakers at the panel described the problem the math department at her university had filling its math courses and therefore their inability to afford the faculty they needed. Solution – students from China.
Understand what that means. In the short term, foreign students pay the bills and keep our universities going. In the long term, we are exporting American intellectual and scientific capital. Foreign students are not a problem if American students stay interested. It can be a benefit here resulting from cross-fertilization and international networks to get things done. But if our students lose interest, it means that we cannot expect to have a leading role in the future of the world.
Peter Drucker, one of our best management experts, pointed out the career choices of our young govern the direction of the country about two decades later. When they went into railroads, we had an exemplary rail system. When they shifted to cars, rails declined and cars took over. When they moved into medical research, aerospace and electronics, this country made great and important strides. And when they shifted to financial services, their companies stopped investing in American manufacturing and their efforts were consumed in what economists call arbitrage, making profits out of small differences in the prices of different products in different markets. Whoopy for them but poor prospects for the American future.
The tax code encourages the shift into finance. The current extreme libertarian attitude focuses only on what’s in it for me and undervalues what science, engineering, mathematics and other fields can do. And the educational system isn’t compensating. The result is a shift that has to be dealt with, or the US will move from being a world leader to a has-been.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 19, 2014.