There’s this cute thing that non-STEM majors do every once in a while: They imagine that the process of earning, say, a Computing Science degree is essentially similar to the process of earning whatever degree they actually attained. Presumably, they imagine, it begins with a number of survey courses that give a broad overview of the history of the discipline and the various schools of thought and specialization within it, and continues with more specialized courses in those various specializations — and at the same time broadens into possibly-related courses from other departments — and entails the acquisition of knowledge in a more or less organic fashion. Matt Yglesias is the latest person to imagine what it might take to earn a STEM degree and write about it on the internet, but as he’s a rather observant fellow he wonders at the observed differences between his Philosophy programme and, say, my CS undergrad programme.
Presumably because it makes for good writing, he jumps straight to malice as his driving hypothesis:
The STEM departments received large quantities of outside money to conduct research, and they used their pool of graduate students as laboratory labor. An increase in the number of undergraduate students the STEM departments had to teach was a drain on the supply of graduate students, since graduate students would need to be diverted from lab work to teaching assistant work. In the humanities, the situation was quite different. The humanities departments don’t have lucrative outside research grants that require graduate student labor. Instead, their economic problem is a lack of demand for the labor of humanities Ph.D. students. An influx of undergraduates into the major prompted a disbursement of central university funds to employ more teaching assistants and lecturers thus helping to solve the problem of underemployed humanities Ph.D.s. Not coincidentally, the humanities faculties tended to be very eager to recruit people into majoring in their field and were eager to get nonmajors to take at least a few elective classes. The STEM faculties, by contrast, tended to ward people off with intro classes designed to scare people away and complicated webs of pre-requisites that aimed to weed out nonmajors.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, although it relies a bit too much upon Yglesias’s omission of the fact that even STEM departments get a lot of funding based on undergraduate enrolment numbers — not to mention the notion that an intro Philosophy course is much the same as an intro CS course and any differences in how they’re taught can be attributed mainly to the incentives under which the profs operate. This, of course, is not true.
Intro STEM classes aren’t designed to scare people away so much as they’re designed to impart a wide range of utterly fundamental tools in a short period of time — and, yes, to weed out students who lack facility with the basics. This weeding-out is less a matter of elitism than it is of efficiency: If you don’t have a sufficient grasp of calculus, programming, statics, or organic chem to pass the first-year requirements you’ll only find yourself further behind in subsequent courses.
Similarly, STEM’s complicated webs of prereqs aren’t designed merely to exclude non-majors but to ensure that anyone taking the course can actually, you know, pass it with a sufficiency of effort. If you don’t walk into my graphics course with an appropriate background in vector calculus, software engineering, data structures and algorithms, and linear algebra — I can’t teach you computer graphics, at least not at the level the department expects from me. (I can probably get you to the point of drawing a smiley face on the screen.) As it happens, I taught myself computer graphics starting in high school, and it took me about five years to pick up enough dribs and drabs of vector calculus and &c. to educate myself to roughly the level that a third-year undergrad course, with appropriate prereqs, should be able to achieve in four months.
For all that, Yglesias signs off with a bit of insight:
There’s a lot of sense nowadays that we, as a society, want to push more students into these fields (I’m not sure that consensus is correct but leave it for another day), but if that’s what we want to do we need to structure the financing of colleges to align with that goal.
I’m not sure that I trust someone with so manifestly incomplete a grasp of what STEM education entails to have a useful opinion on whether “that consensus is correct”, but I guess we’ll leave that for another day too. The priorities of most STEM programmes are dominated by faculty research, and that isn’t a good thing for undergraduate education (though not necessarily for the simplistic reasons Yglesias lays out, although those probably factor in at the margins). Changing the structure of college financing might help, although I’m skeptical that anyone knows how to do it right.