Thanks, Mr. Begley, Jr.!

Just how cool is it when, as happened at the White House last week,  President Obama gives  a shout out to technical programs in community colleges?–after all, the guy  has actually met the Mythbusters! But for sheer celebrity glamor, I’ll take Ed Begley, Jr.’s blog over a White House Summit any day.

A staunch advocate and very public practitioner of green living, and community college alumnus, Begley draws our attention here to The SEED Center, an initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges that consolidates national efforts to promote green-tech training.  I’m guessing that most Huffington Post readers don’t normally see a lot of excited talk about technical education and Begley puts the topic, at least for a blog-minute, before us with palpable enthusiasm.

I don’t know…Maybe it was Obama’s invocation during the Summit of  Home Depot and The Gap  as optimal sites of economic opportunity for community college graduates.  Sure: Corporate engagement with community college initiatives like the White House’s new  Skills for America’s Future might be better than nothing, an acknowledgment that whole communities in the nation are without significant training and employment opportunities.  But these are companies predicated on the perpetuation of many low-skilled jobs and highly stratified workplaces, not to mention on the utterly unsustainable premise of limitless consumption.  Somehow Begley’s excitement about community college training for jobs in clean energy enterprises came off as more thoughtful and even more earnest than the President’s.

We don’t want to lose track of the questions we have about such boosterism (see this blog’s past postings).  Other supposedly booming sectors, like biotech and nanotech, have not yet fulfilled their promises of considerably widened economic opportunity.  And care is needed when we think about “green work”: Not all green enterprise makes conservation as much of a priority as one might hope, as this commercial sector by definition pursues economic growth through new energy-related goods and services.

I also continue to wonder why community colleges and universities can’t together restructure technical occupations so more jobs involve more creativity. Why should community college grads “build and operate” wind turbines while engineers do the designing? Surely there are ways to integrate these stages of technical work to produce more effective technologies and more jobs with real creative depth and greater  promise of economic mobility.

But if we are going to stretch the 15 minutes of fame currently being experienced by America’s community colleges into lasting educational, economic and environmental reform,  supportive gestures like Ed Begley, Jr.’s will certainly help!


Natalie Angier’s angry words about the term “STEM” in her New York Times column last week  (“STEM education has nothing to do with flowers”) are still puzzling to me. 

She made a few good points: The use of acronyms can indeed lead to confusing and exclusive language. STEM education agendas,  simply by grouping certain academic or research activities together and not others, can encourage science and technology to remain remote from social engagement and the concerns of the humanities.  But her ire seemed overblown, sweeping every invocation of STEM away before her  in a blast of almost aesthetic distate for the term. What’s going on here?

The Times published a short letter that I wrote today in response to that column, which I’m glad they titled, “STEM: Fighting Word.”  I hope it captured some other readers’ feelings about her anti-STEM eruption.  But I am left wondering: Is it possible that Angier, a science media writer I have considered among the best,  may not have known that the “STEM” label has adorned countless diversity and equity projects in the science and technical disciplines? If so, those projects are even more marginalized in the science world than I’d  feared. 

We all need to rant now and then.  There are cringe-inducing words that set me off, too:  “Staycation,”  “Spalon”…don’t get me started.  But STEM is a politically and historically complex label.  Angier miscasts it as “didactic and jargony” and thus, for readers who don’t know about STEM’s long-standing role in educational equity,  encourages quick dismissal at every encounter with the word. What a shame. Think of how much good Angier could have done with this column had she distinguished among the multiple invocations of STEM,  rather than just venting.