Courting disaster: treating children like adults

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300"] Maura E. Charette. Photographed by her father, who wrote an equ...

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300"]Maura E. Charette.  Photographed by her father. Maura E. Charette. Photographed by her father, who wrote an equally questionable article in the same issue of IEEE Spectrum, on the "myth" of a STEM "crisis."[/caption]

August must have been a slow news month at IEEE, because they've published a staggeringly bad article, Is a Career in STEM Really for Me? The piece is so shallow and naive, I felt compelled to write about it.

Maura E. Charette wrote the piece. She has just started Grade 8.

(I'll give you a moment to let that sink in.)



STEM, for those who might not know, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics is a clumsy American invention intended to group the disciplines that are not the Humanities. Discussing STEM in education is quite the fad these days, and a great hue and cry of cyclical intensity seems to roll through North America about STEM education. The IEEE is one of the few STEM organizations large enough to have a significant presence in North American education, so it figures they'd have things to say about it.

But to trust a 13- or 14-year old to contribute meaningfully to that discussion is ridiculous.

First of all, the article is suspiciously well written. I've read graduate theses that were far worse in grammar and composition than her work. While I'm confident that someone ghosted the article for her, I cannot prove it; so, I will be charitable and assume that her school is really as good as she says it is, with respect to the standards of most developed countries (which are, I would note, substantively higher than those of the US).

Her main point is summed up at the end of the article: "…don't count on my pursuing a STEM career. It just doesn't look very appealing." The real problems start when one considers her rationale for finding STEM unappealing.

She writes that she gets "straight As in those subjects." That means precious little, really, because she's writing about Grade 7 science and math. This is the kind of science and math that everyone must take. We're not talking about surface integrals or quantum mechanics. How exactly can this be thought of as STEM material? A career in STEM requires a knowledge of the (some parts of) the STEM body of knowledge, not the body of common scientific and mathematical knowledge we expect most if not all of a given population to understand.

We - and, most importantly, she herself - might interpret her grades as indicating a generally elevated academic ability, but not much more than that. That somehow her Grade 7 "As" in STEM subjects correlate to the academic rigour required to have a STEM career is a fallacy of false generalization. In other words, she lacks the education necessary to decide if her education is sufficient.

In the third paragraph, Ms. Charette starts using the "royal 'we'," which Mark Twain famously reserved for royalty, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms. I suppose she means to describe the group of her peers of which she is also a member, but there is no reason given in the article to think that the size of that group significant, nor that their opinions (ill-founded though they may be) are sufficiently uniform, to warrant such a grouping. I note that by the end of that same paragraph, she returns to the first person singular.

That paragraph covers the first of three points she raises to support her claim that STEM careers aren't appealing; namely, that STEM careers require a great deal of work and will prevent her from engaging in her other interests, which include "writing, art, and history…."

Firstly, there are many people with STEM careers who engage meaningfully in avocational pursuits; these are often documented in various newspapers, trade publications, and magazines. Indeed, I cannot think of a single one of my colleagues who doesn't have at least one avocational interest that would qualify them as "experts" with respect to the general population. Secondly, Ms. Charette is again working on the assumption that one's behaviours will not change in response to one's adult avocational desires; that is, adults who seek to continue an avocational pursuit can indeed become experts in those avocations by the time they reach middle age. And having any more than a Grade 8 level of capability in anything avocational will require substantive dedication. Thirdly, many of those "other interests" will simply stop being interesting as time goes on, either because one realizes one has no particular talent for it, or that one's tastes evolve as one matures. Fourthly, Ms. Charette doesn't understand that keeping an avocational interest is not as necessary in the formation of one's character as having had them in their youth. The hobbies that I had right up to my early thirties served me very well in terms of rounding my character - even though I do not pursue them now.

So Ms. Charette's first claim is simply not supported by the evidence. Of course, this kind of error is to be expected of a 14-year old child.

And let's be clear: she is still a child. The region of the brain that manages abstract and temporal reasoning, ethics, and so on matures on average at 20 years of age. This region is necessary for the kind of reasoning Ms. Charette is attempting to execute. She is, therefore, a child.

Ms. Charette's second reason for not wanting to pursue a STEM career is the "overemphasis on engineering" as the connective tissue between science and practical use. I'm not sure about that overemphasis, again due to the purely subjective argument that she presents. She characterizes this overemphasis as a "push" towards engineering, but rails that engineering was not explained to her except through exercises she (again subjectively) found "simplistic," like building bridges from straws and marshmallows. She also complains that while she likes "…solving math problems, what does finding the slope of a line using three different techniques have to do with anything I might do in the future?"

While one may make a good argument that the relevance of school work with respect to one's career could be described better, such an argument would be founded on evidence to which Ms. Charette clearly lacks access. More significantly, her claims speak to a certain arrogance of many children today - that their opinions to matter. They don't - not in any significant way. Of course, a child's opinion can speak significantly to the underlying issues that the child is actually facing; but that is a far cry from accepting such opinions as valuable contributions to the matter at hand writ large. In this case, Ms. Charette's opinions clearly speak to her ignorance, naivety, and immaturity on the subject of education and career choice, and can and should be used as data by educational experts and policy makers who are trying to make the educational system better.

Nor should Ms. Charette and other children like her be silenced; down that road we have already travelled and it leads nowhere good. Furthermore, there is the rare possibility that a child's opinion may reveal a deeper truth that had evaded adults and experts. From the mouths of babes, and all that. But this in no way means that we must ascribe any specific importance to those opinions. For the same reason that we do not give weight to a lay person's medical opinion, we should not give weight to child's opinion of the educational system. And that Ms. Charette seems convinced her opinion is substantive underscores the false entitlement that society unfortunately bestows on the ignorance, the naive, and the immature.

The third reason Ms. Charette gives for being disinterested in a STEM career is the significance of teamwork. Again rife with subjective, anecdotal argumentation, this part of the essay proposes that teamwork cannot be executed without learning it first; she writes "…we aren't learning how to work in teams." She writes, "A few students found the assignment pointless…." This again underscores the implied arrogance - that their opinions are sufficiently well informed and mature as to matter. As if one can learn teamwork without practice. Teamwork, like playing music, must be practiced. You can't learn to play the piano without actually playing it; and you can't learn to work in teams without actually working in teams. It comes as no surprise to me that a group if self-important and arrogant grade-schoolers should think a teamwork project as a "distasteful ordeal." Ms. Charette clearly has no idea why the exercise was offered to begin with. I would be very surprised if there weren't some guided discussion at the end of the exercise about the teamwork aspects - especially if Ms. Charette's school is as good as she claims it is; I would also be very surprised if any comments of hers about this were edited out of the article for brevity, and also sensationalism.

I would also note that if Ms. Charette thinks there's no "teamwork" in other disciplines, then she is in for a rude awakening. In virtually any area in which one may build a "career," modern times call for collaboration between diverse experts to achieve a common goal - i.e. teamwork. Not to mention that collaboration is a hallmark of a successful society and not just a marker of a good career.

Some of you may think I'm being too harsh on Ms. Charette.  Well, if you think that way, then you're part of the problem.  If she wants to play with the adults, then she'll have to play by our rules.  In fact, compared to most children her age, who are woefully inarticulate, barely out of their diapers, and borderline illiterate, Ms. Charette clearly has great potential.

No; my real argument is with the adults in her life, who are choosing - probably for the sake for their own self-gratification - to give her an entirely sub-standard education.  And I'm not talking about marshmallow bridges and "distasteful" teamwork exercises here.  I'm talking about teaching a child his or her place in society.  They will have their chance to be adults, but not until they are ready for it.  Adults have orchestrated Ms. Charette's laughable essay by making her think she was up to the job.  Who knows? In 10 or 20 years, she may well revolutionize education.  But now is not the time for that.

So long as we insist on pander to our children and fill them with these categorically wrong notions of their inherent importance of their malformed opinions, we will have to continue to expect them to grow up into equally entitled and wholly inadequate adults.

Honestly, I don't know what's worse: the entirely pointless rant of a disgruntled 14-year old child, or the IEEE who believed this abysmal essay warranted publication.

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