COMMENTARY: Looking beyond STEM to prepare for meaningful human work

Credit: Alison Yin/EdSource (2014)

As Los Angeles residents look to a new seal of approval for assurance that “STEM schools” are delivering what they claim, maybe we should consider whether such a single-minded focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics goes too far.

The rapid spread of automation, artificial intelligence and robotics in the workplace, accelerated by the pandemic, will create STEM jobs. But we need to empower many more children and adults to live fulfilling lives than STEM fields can accommodate, and this will mean going beyond the emphases of these programs.

To equip Americans for a future no one can fully imagine, we must teach them to reason ethically, think critically, and develop their interpersonal skills and problem-solving creativity. The dangers of failing to do so abound, even in STEM fields.

The Social Dilemma,” a Netflix docudrama, explores the need for more ethical approaches to technology — approaches that can reduce the dangerous human effects of social media, including addiction, lower self-esteem, and loneliness.

Rather than scour school rankings for the best STEM programs in Silicon Valley or the San Francisco Bay area or fret over a school’s STEM “seal of approval” in Los Angeles, a future with human work requires that we take steps in another direction.

If not, we risk repeatedly falling into the trap the software developers in “The Social Dilemma” encountered, often with the best of intentions. Today, these technology leaders, who worked for Facebook, Google, and Twitter, are critical of the influence their creations exert over American democracy and our everyday lives.

The film is scary, but we shouldn’t fear all new technologies. Nor should we view STEM education as the antidote to concerns about rising racial and economic inequality in a changing workforce. Smart machines will make some jobs disappear—many already have—but they will be replaced by better jobs. People just need to be ready for them, and this implies a fresh take on the liberal arts.

No one can predict the future, but solely focusing on STEM, limited technical education, coding camps or training that develops narrow skills won’t deliver what people need. That’s because human capacities such as critical reasoning, empathy, ethical behavior and others honed through wider learning cannot be automated away.

Technical skills count, but the ability to apply them to solve problems will matter more. Besides, technical skills are always changing, which is why everyone needs to keep learning throughout their life. Our ability to learn may be the most important skill of all.

Instead of performing repetitive tasks on an assembly line, workers in manufacturing are needed to set up and guide the machines, repair them, and perform the more complex parts of the job, including tasks that require creative solutions. The same dynamic is playing out in industry after industry.

So the good news is that our future is about human work — the things only people can do. Skills and knowledge matter, but workers must be able to apply them to solve problems in rapidly shifting work environments. It’s no surprise that more and more work involves working with other people.

As AI-enhanced technology extends its reach in fields like healthcare, education, retail, and hospitality, people are needed to focus on the human element. The future of working involves helping and serving others — using technology and other resources to understand and help solve people’s problems.

These same abilities are what we so desperately need for people to be active citizens in our increasingly complex and diverse world.

Addressing the complex problems that threaten our democracy and society — the rise of authoritarianism, the legacy of structural racism, the existential threat of climate change — demands citizens have the higher-level abilities that human work requires.

And just as human work requires learning throughout life, there is no single point where someone “graduates” as an active and engaged citizen — it is a way of being that must be fostered and developed.

As we prepare our children for the future we need to look away from the short-term benefits of focusing on which fields lead directly into the job market. It’s about work, work that allows us to be fully human, relating to others and deriving satisfaction long after the pay premiums of more-technical fields fade.


Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of the book Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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COMMENTARY: Looking beyond STEM to prepare for meaningful human work

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