This piece originally appeared in the National Interest.
In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams wrote, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” It reflects a sensible recognition that education inherently involves securing a nation’s most fundamental interests—its security and prosperity.
Today, as America faces potential new global conflicts, the first generation of Adams’s curriculum will need one major addition to ensure U.S. security aimed at military and economic competition: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. While the dream that every student has the potential to be the next brilliant scientist may be a costly indulgence, the reality is that there is an insufficient number of individuals studying STEM fields to maintain the United States’ forefront position in technological innovation in the years ahead.
A recent survey by the Science & Technology Action Committee underscores this concern. In polling STEM-related workers—encompassing science, technology, engineering, and math, along with education, health care, business, military, and national security—76 percent of respondents believed that the United States either lost its global leadership in science and technology or is currently in the process of doing so. Three-fifths of respondents believe China will attain global science and technology dominance within five years. Respondents identified several obstacles to sustaining U.S. leadership in these fields, including foreign interference in research, bureaucratic red tape, the absence of a comprehensive national science and technology strategy, and inadequate funding for research and development. However, according to respondents, the primary culprit is K-12 STEM education.
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