Has focus on STEM aided the (re)rise of Populism?

The answer to the above question is probably no, but I believe that a preoccupation with output, how we can use people to deliver the most economic gain, viewing education as a means to an end, rather than focusing on the joy of knowledge itself, is a clear manifestation of the way many governments are thinking at the moment, and it is the same type of thinking that can be associated with populism. In a sense there is not a causal link between focus on STEM and populism, but more of a correlative one.

I was attending a conference last week when the above thought struck me. It might seem a bit odd to suggest that there is a connection between the two, but I’ll try and explain my reasoning below. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not a political scientist, sociologist, nor a political theorist, so I am doing this purely from a position of curiosity and my own ideas. I’m also going to try keep my own political views to a minimum, but I very much doubt I’ll be able to do it completely. So, without further ado; has a preoccupation with STEM aided the re-emergence of populism?

There are many factors that have led to recent political movements across the globe, many of which I would not even want to attempt to unpick because they are unbelievably complex, and many of which I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Instead I’d like to focus on one particular strand, that of the promotion of STEM subjects alongside the apparent rejection of subjects without immediately obviously outputs or products, and whether this has aided the rise of populism. This might seem like a bit of a leap to make, but I think it’s symptomatic of the way governments and business seem to be thinking at the moment, or at least in the way I’m observing it.

Thinking = Umit Bulut
Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

Populism is defined, academically, as the idea that ‘society is separated into two groups at odds with one another “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”‘ (Cas Mudde, author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction). In the world today it is often used to describe the political movements that sprung up around Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, Bernie Sanders, & Jeremy Corbyn. It is a common misconception that populism is only associated with the far right, when in fact it can be any political movement with an us vs. them basis. So-called populist movements were everywhere in the mid-2010s, from Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland (on the right), to Evo Morales in Bolivia (on the left). But they are not a new phenomenon. Populism is the same political behavior that brought to power the likes of Adolf Hitler and Fidel Castro, amongst many others.

Rally - Samantha Sophia
Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

It is very difficult to pin down what populism actually is, but some scholars (and I think I most agree with this statement) believe that it is ‘linked to frustration over declines in status or welfare, some to national nostalgia’ (The Economist). This statement can be read in various ways, from general dissatisfaction to out and out xenophobia and racism. In terms of how it manifests itself; it tends to be characterised by large rallies, a key central figure, and a certain aspects of political tribalism or perhaps “cult-like” behaviour.

STEM is an acronym used in education and by government to mean Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths/Medicine/Management. There has been a huge focus on STEM subjects over the last decade or so in the UK, because we are falling behind in these areas in terms of skills. The government is worried that as the population ages and skilled workers retire, we will not have enough trained young people to replace them (the fact that there are plenty of skilled potential immigrants out there seems to have escaped them somewhat – the UK has a Tier 2 Visa limit of just over 20,000 a year in total. Tiny, right?).

Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

The preoccupation with this skill deficit is laid out in lots of documents from the Department of Education, such as the Post-16 Technical Education Reforms, which talks about designing programmes ‘to lead people to valuable outcomes’. In this document there is a focus on STEM. By highlighting these it seems as if anything else is not a “valuable outcome”; or at least that’s the implication I read from it. It seems as if everything is concerned with output, and what can be delivered at the end. This is a massive over-simplification, but for the purposes of this piece, it will do.

How do these link together?

  • Thought vs. Action

It appears recently that there has been a rise of this false dichotomy; that somehow if one stops to think, then there is a lack of action. Of course this is false, and has been proved so many a time. Yet it was what UK politician Michael Gove played upon when he said that ‘people of the [UK] have had enough of experts’ when he was campaigning for the ‘Leave’ campaign in the run-up to the referendum on the UK’s position in the European Union. In suggesting that somehow “experts” were a bad thing, it suggested that anyone who had a learned opinion was suddenly something suspect or not to be trusted. This can be applied to both STEM and non-STEM subjects, but it seems to be especially weighted towards theorists, suggesting that nobody involved in the Brexit movement was interested in hearing an “expert” opinion. Ironically, the experts who Gove was talking about were economists, and top financiers, who were advising that Brexit would be bad for business. But according to Gove, nobody wanted to hear from stuffy academics, they were only interested in what was going on on the ground. “Alternative Facts” if you will.

  • Us vs. Them

This is the very fabric of populism. It is what underpins the entire movement. The idea that “we the people” are pitted against another body/political mass. It is very black and white when clearly there are lots of shades of grey in between. Trump won the election by promising ‘the forgotten man and woman’ that he would be their champion against crooked politicians. Apparently irony is not a word Trump understands (one amongst many). We have begun to see this being created in the academic and educational environment by talk of making some subjects cheaper to study than others, or putting higher esteem markers on various subjects. You would think in this supposed skills deficit that the government would be making STEM subjects cheaper. In fact it is the other way around; supposedly advertising that these subjects have more “value” (as they are more expensive) than others. This immediately creates the idea that certain subjects are worth more than others due to their outputs, rather than the academic rigour that goes into developing and studying them.

So what does all of this have to do with STEM?

Now, don’t in anyway misunderstand me – those who study STEM subjects are extremely intelligent; they are the experts, they are thinkers, and they are creators; and they are very much needed. What I have a problem with is this idea that they are the most valuable, and that somehow other subjects are not worth as much. I believe that this idea is, at best, unhelpful, and at worst, dangerous. I believe that it is a symptom of the current space that the a lot of countries find themselves in; recovering from recession, fighting “the war on terror” (whatever that is), fighting “the war on drugs” (whatever that is), maintaining a global political position, overpopulation, climate change, mass immigration… the list goes on, and it is not a pretty picture.

So, in times like this it is only natural to look to what can be done in the here and now to fix the problem. How can we build/trade/make things to help us out of recession? What will we engineer to keep us one step ahead of those who would do us harm? What weapons or technologies will keep us politically relevant? These are all important, but they do not exist in a bubble. Alongside the makers and doers, we need the thinkers and creators, the dreamers, and the culture-makers. It might not be so tangible what these brilliant minds do, but they are as indispensable. We need to understand the motivations, customs, histories, and political habits of those who would do us harm as well as how to combat the threat. We need to envisage a political system that leads to lasting peace/development of the world stage as well as how to remain strong in the current situation.

It seems to me that this focus on making/doing/productivity and now/now/now seems to create an environment where a politician can say ‘people are sick of experts’ or the President of the United States can say ‘You see what’s happening. We’re keeping our promises. In fact, they have signs – “He’s Kept His Promise”. They’re all over the place. I have. We have done far more – I think maybe more than anybody’s done in this office in 50 days, that I could tell you,’ and he’s not completely torn to shreds for being a complete f*cking idiot. Okay, now my politics is showing.

It is essential that we have the makers and the doers, the builders and logicians, those who can build our bridges, fix our bodies, and create the next breakthrough in arable food production. Those who study STEM subjects are critical to society; we need them. But it is also essential that we have the artists, the writers, the thinkers, the creators in order to have a society that will flourish not just for now, but in the future as well. It seems there is a current obsession with the economic value of everything, and that if something’s value isn’t inherently obvious then it must be worth less. Bringing everything down to a £p value is a dangerous exercise. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake has value, and it should be protected at all costs. We must protect it, and not be complacent, so that when movements do spring up that are seemingly proud of their ignorance, and that vilify academia and “expert-ism” we will be ready to defend that which matters.

Well, I definitely went a little bit off piste on this one, but it was something that I had been stewing on for a while. I hope it was interesting for you to read! It’s been a while since I had to write an essay like this, so my apologies if it doesn’t quite make sense! I’m interested to know your thoughts on the topic, so let me know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Has focus on STEM aided the (re)rise of Populism?

  1. Very interesting Isabella. Your focus on STEM reminds me of Sir Ken Robinson’s assertion that creativity can be taught as a general subject discipline and needs to be fully integrated into the post industrial education systems of the west. Ironically, I too wrote a blog on my concerns about populism about a month ago and it was similar in length, to yours above, but different in other ways . Unlike you, I do not refer to a lack of rigorous research on my part. I have been blogging for relatively a short time and have a limited number of followers, so I have interpreted the wordpress audience that I have encountered so far part as artisits, writers, poets or subjective commentators, not researchers or spokespeople. In the US, and now here in Canada, the word “liberal” or “liberalism” is becoming a lightning rod for anger by populists. You may remember Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Steve Bannon. There is little about him that I can find on Youtube, but there is one video address he gave to a Vatican related audience several years ago in which he reveals his ongoing disdain for liberalism and his belief that the first step in resolving a “global cultural attack against Western Values” is, in his mind, the quick and total eradicatoin of liberalism, as he undestands it. Again, I suspect he and many others have never read any of the theory laid down by one of the founding philosophers of liberalism, John Stuart Mill. But Sir Ken Robinson and his optimistic view of the ultimate effect of technology and the information age, which I share, is consistent with the preservation of liberalism and an antidote to STEM.

    1. Hello! I am so sorry I didn’t reply to this sooner – for some reason it ended up in my SPAM comments?! I have no idea why! Very interesting comment. I fear that right-wing populists will use whatever they can get their hands on to vilify some sector or another, it’s as normal to them as the air that they breathe. Steve Bannon is a disgusting swamp creature, and I’m only glad we don’t seem to have anyone like him (yet) over here.
      Also “global cultural attack against Western Values” – WTF?! I just can’t even… I could write a book about that statement alone, and I’m sure many have….

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

  2. Well, a very interesting piece, and I’m not sure I see a direct link either. Rather, I think both phenomena are products of this late stage of capitalism. Populism is the very successful result of divide and rule by the system and the ruling class, and leads discontent into a dangerous dead-end (see recent history). STEM I suspect leads to more ‘channelled’ therefore less open thinking, less challenge to the system, too, as well as being more saleable, as you point out. I noted this week an article pointing our serious fall in the numbers of students taking English and other humanities in the sixth form…

    I think you need to read some Marx… bloody difficult and I’ve only recently tackled it seriously, so you’ve a while yet (!). But I still can’t flaw his point that the economic nexus is the primary one: resolve that, and then deal with the others, because otherwise opposition is divided and ultimately ineffective: feminists and environmentalists and anti-racists and all the rest of us have our efforts against the system divided, and they continue to laugh all the way to the bank…

    And, as an oldie, I’m heartened to see critical analysis from a younger generation (no patronising intended there at all: I hope you are more successful at changing things than we weren’t…)

    1. Marx is on my reading list, but I’ve not yet been brave enough to tackle it!

      I think the main thing I was trying to get across was this idea that some knowledge is worth more than others, and that can lead to “my [lack of] knowledge is worth more than yours”… Hopefully it was somewhat salient!

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