Over the past year I have worked my way through almost all of the episodes of the 90’s sitcom Frasier. I owe it all to Netflix. The show is still funny to me. One of the reasons why the show was such a hit during its heyday, and why I like it now, is the comedy generated from the snootiness of the Crane brothers – the titular character and his younger brother Niles. They were ivy-league educated, made constant references to classical music and literature, and were always drinking sherry out of little tiny glasses that if I had their training I would know the name of. A typical scenario: Frasier, a radio show host, has been pranked several times by a pair of shock jocks who work alongside him. One one occasion they trick Frasier into singing on the radio. Frasier says “two can play at that game” and attempts to settle the score by writing a monologue filled with references to Plato, Shakespeare, and God knows who else and reciting it in front of the shock jocks. Of course this is ridiculous. You cannot combat grown men who make a living getting people to fart on air with verbose quotes from Aristotle. That’s why it’s funny.
I’ve also caught a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory, the current popular comedy about overeducated people being all awkward. I like this show too, and when it is available on Netflix I’ll gobble it up. But although Sheldon, Leonard, and the rest of the guys are all egg-heads like Frasier and Niles, the comedy derived from their nerdiness is a bit different.
The comedy generated from the Big Bang Theory occurs because the characters, especially Sheldon, knows far too much about hard science. A typical Sheldon comment: “there should be a raisin to flake ratio in my cereal of 1 to 17 for maximum taste, the same ratio of black holes to quasars found in the Ardunas Galaxy, plutonium molecules to selenium molecules in a Star Trek stun gun…”. But a lack of understanding of the softer arts of human relationships leads to trouble – “I am experiencing a biochemical reaction in my brain that is leading to some uncomfortable physiological reactions…you may call it…being horny.” They are stereotypical nerds – right down to the way they dress and their clumsiness with women.
Frasier, on the other hand, has his awkward moments – a common joke is his complete ignorance of sporting events – but by and large you can imagine him fitting in quite well with the “people of average intelligence”. He could take his knowledge of Shakespeare, Verdi, and Beckett and apply it to any situation that arises.
Thinking about these two shows made me think about our nation’s push to increase the number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates, and where we could be making some missteps. Let me explain…
Putting Roots on Stems
The emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is certainly warranted. The increasing computerization of our society is not slowing down anytime soon. The high-paying jobs of the future will require students to be able to manipulate symbols effectively – mathematical concepts, computer code, abstract processes and systems.
We’ve rushed headlong into focusing on STEM. It has been almost maniacal. Meanwhile, we are ignoring the humanities like history, philosophy, literature, and yes…sociology (my favorite). The typical response would be that every college degree requires about 60 credits of general education courses. This is supposed to be the broad base.
But anyone who has contact with higher education knows that general education gets short shrift. Students have put their finger to the wind, and know that what really matters are the courses within their major. Students see general education courses as a nuisance – hoops to jump through. Humanities and social science professors are paid less (it has been argued that this is the most direct measure of what society thinks you are worth – see the Davis Moore Thesis). The emphasis on STEM is even felt in grade school, with many school districts eliminating classes like physical education and art in favor of spending more time on math and science.
This narrow focus on STEM is a mistake. We are creating too many Sheldons. It is OK to have a few egg-heads in a cohort of college graduates. But our goal now seems to be the production of nothing but myopic egg-heads.
Highly educated graduates with no understanding of the origins of this great country (History), social relationships (Sociology), the privilege it is to live in a democracy (Politics), and the obligation we have to our fellow man (Ethics) can’t apply their knowledge effectively. They can build a new mobile application. They can identify the vulnerabilities in a computer network. They can write algorithms to classify, cluster, categorize, and so on. But without some context, some “root” upon which to ground this technical knowledge, these STEM graduates will be nothing more (or less) than highly paid plumbers.
Really, it boils down to that. Plumbers get good money because no one knows what the heck they are doing. We don’t see it as technical because we can see the crack of the plumber’s ass. But finally, the guy designing the web-page is the plumber’s equal – they just wear skinny jeans, black rimmed glasses, and shop at Whole Foods. Oh, and we see computer technology as more important so we bestow more prestige on the programmer.
What I am saying here is that we need more Frasiers. We need our graduates to be able to integrate the highly technical knowledge they are learning with a broad understanding of history, ethics, art, and human behavior. They need to be renaissance men and women. Then, instead of being reactionary and fixing the problems of frazzle-haired housewives like a plumber, they can be visionaries. They can imagine ways to make our country and our world better. They can ground their decisions in a rich understanding of the human experience, and make ethical choices that can produce wealth without harming our environment or our neighbors. They can be the people that shepherd this great country through the 21st century.