Capitalism and Western Civilization: STEM

William H. Young

One of the reasons for the lack of urgently needed economic growth and jobs in America is the worsening shortage of college graduates in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Higher education and the Obama administration are pursuing the wrong objective—more female STEM graduates to achieve gender parity and diversity. The better national solution is to reverse the decline in male STEM graduates to most quickly stimulate economic growth. 

John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, recently observed: “A close look at American unemployment statistics reveals a contradiction: Even with unemployment at historically high levels, large numbers of jobs are going unfilled. Many of these jobs have one thing in common—the need for an educational background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics….This is a problem—for young people and for our country. We need STEM-related talent to compete globally….For the United States to remain the global innovation leader, we must make the most of all of the potential STEM talent this country has to offer.” (“STEM Education is the Key to the U. S.’s Economic Future,” (US News & World Report, June 15, 2012) 

The Economic Survey of the United States, released on June 26, 2012 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), found that “the United States is losing its cutting edge in innovation. This affects prospects for long-term growth and for maintaining living standards….Particularly worrying is the performance in education, which is essential to provide skills necessary to become more productive and to adapt to technological change.” The report recommends increasing the number of STEM graduates. 

College attendance has increased by about 50 percent (largely women) over the past 25 years, but the number of STEM degrees has been flat. Over the past decade, two million fewer men graduated from college than women. Most STEM graduates have historically been men, but between 2000 and 2009, the number of male engineering graduates declined by 106,000. (See my previous article STEM

Shedding new light from the 2010 Census on that trend, “the share of American workers in the science and engineering professions fell slightly in the past decade, ending what had been a steady upward trend in the proportion of workers in fields associated with technological innovation and economic growth.” The share of these technical workers fell to 4.9 percent of the labor force in 2010, down from a peak of 5.3 percent in 2000—the first such decline since 1950. (See my previous article Jobs

Driven by gender feminist and diversity ideology, the academy and government continue to pursue gender parity as the STEM solution. Christina Hoff Sommers has charged that the STEM gender-equity movement, working through the National Science Foundation, is on a path to transform the “entire culture” of such education, to make it more cooperative and democratic and less obsessive and stressful—more gender fair. It seeks an academic STEM setting that is “quota-driven, gender-balanced, cooperative rather than competitive, and less time-consuming.” And “the Obama administration and academic educationists have promised to litigate, regulate, and legislate the nation’s universities until women obtain half of all academic degrees in science and technology and hold half of the faculty positions in those areas.” 

Now the Obama administration has rolled out Title IX of the Education and Amendments Act of 1972 to buttress its misguided strategy. A White House Press Release (“Obama Administration Commemorates 40 Years of Increasing Equality and Opportunity for Women in Education and Athletics,” June 20, 2012) announced an event hosted by Valerie Jarrett, Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls (there is no council for men and boys) at which the Department of Education proclaimed that it is revising “Title IX Technical Assistance to K‒12 and post-secondary institutions to explicitly address STEM.” Institutions receiving federal financial assistance will be “required to ensure equal access to educational programs and resources in STEM fields.” (See also Lindsey Burke, “Application of Title IX Guidance to Math and Science Education,” Heritage Foundation, July 24, 2012, for further discussion of this.) 

In USA Today, columnist Kirsten Powers argued (“Girls don’t need Obama’s help with math, July 17, 2012) that in applying Title IX to increase the number of girls pursuing STEM degrees, President Obama is ignoring 

 the ‘problem with no name,’ male underachievement. Instead of addressing this growing problem, the Obama administration is invoking the power of the U. S. government to tackle a problem that doesn’t exist. As a woman and an old-school feminist, I want to be the first to say: Thanks, but no thanks. 

Powers goes on to note that women receive 60 percent of degrees in biology and 72 percent in psychology. Yet 

nobody is raging about that gender disparity despite the fact that Title IX protects the underrepresented sex, male or female. According to the Department of Education, no investigations into this or many other gender disparities in favor of girls and women in a variety of disciplines are pending….The only legitimate role for White House officials is to enforce the law and ensure equal access for all Americans, male or female.

Gender feminism continues to insist that there are no innate differences between males and females in interests or cognitive capabilities. In a 2010 report Why So Few? the American Association of University Women (AAUW) speciously argued that the long-standing belief that boys are better at math than girls is a stereotype and cultural construct: “Thirty years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13; today that number has shrunk to about 3:1.” But only “about 120,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students take the SAT…They’re drawn from a pool of students nationwide who score within the top 3 percent of achievement tests at their schools.”(Matthew Keenan, “SAT Exam, Taken at Age 13, Can Predict Career Path of Gifted,Bloomberg, September 7, 2007) 

Mark J. Perry has explained  that there continues to be a statistically significant gender disparity in mathematical aptitude favoring males on the SAT math tests typically taken by 2.8 million juniors and seniors. “High school boys have scored higher on average than their female counterparts on the SAT math test in every year from 1972 to 2010, and the differences are statistically significant and large, averaging 38 points higher for boys over the past four decades.” There continue to be legitimate reasons why girls tend to choose fields involving people and boys choose fields involving abstractions. 

To solve our worsening national economic problem, higher education and national policymakers should be giving priority to at least restoring the number of STEM degrees earned by boys—who still have the greatest potential aptitude and interests for such fields—rather than pursuing a quixotic and counterproductive ideological agenda. 

Companies have been partnering with local colleges to design STEM programs. However, at a US News & World Report STEM Solutions Summit on June 29, 2012, Tom Luce, Director of the National Math + Science Institute, argued that “there are pockets of STEM success all around the nation, but it’s time to stop championing small pilot programs and to start scaling them up…across the country.” And Uri Treisman, professor of mathematics at the University of Texas-Austin, noted that “there are massive disconnects between high school programs and higher education.” 

Our best and brightest in high school—especially boys—should be prepared and inspired to choose the path to a STEM degree in college as a contribution to our economic imperative and national interest and as well as their own prosperity. 

Next week’s article will address the immaterial assets needed by students to succeed.



This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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