The argument for inclusion, diversity and broadening participation in STEM fields is that the country is better when all of its people and talents are engaged. On one side of this divided nation that simple argument is obvious and needs no defense - it is part of the national definition, part of the alignment with lofty American ideals. On the other side lives the dark side of the American story – the side of the past, of American cruelty, barbarism and terrorism.
Making the case for STEM education when the American dark side is on the rise will require extraordinary focus and a commitment to battle that my generation has not experienced.
What are we really up against in this American past?
In recent months the full weight of the conflict between America’s past and future was revealed again. In Charlottesville, a man in defense of America’s past drove a car into a crowd gathered in support of America’s future. He crushed a young woman and killed her. In a manner similar to the barbarism of ISIS soldiers, he was fueled by a doctrine of hatred and inhumanity. He was riled up by thousands of his tribe who, in 2017 - 152 years after the end of the Civil War, gathered to defend Robert E. Lee, the standard bearer for southern sedition, slavery and American treason.
Shortly thereafter, the President pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Over years, Sheriff Arpaio unleashed on Hispanic people in Arizona, a degree of tyranny, violence and dislocation reminiscent of the cruelty meted out to Japanese Americans during World War II. On the pretense that they are illegal people, he commissioned his officers to hunt for brown people, harass, arrest and corral them into jails and detention centers that he himself called concentration camps. He brought back the chain gang from the dark corners of early 20th century America – for black and brown women. A US. District court judge found him guilty of being a vile and a repugnant reminder of the dark side of the American past.
The President not only pardoned the man, he pardoned his philosophy.
He did so in the face of an approaching storm, Hurricane Harvey – one of the most devastating storms in American history. A storm whose recovery, we all know, will require the back breaking labor of thousands of those very Hispanic people.
And then today the President revoked DACA – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In doing so he took a step further in his public disdain for America’s future and his revelry in its dark past. He cast a cloud of dread and uncertainty over 800,000 people living in this country. The cruelty and inhumanity of this act is clear. It is as clear to those who believe in America's future, as it is incomprehensible.
The battle lines are drawn – America’s past versus its future. Make America great again implies that its greatness lies in its past. It does not. Its greatness is the substance of our yearnings. It is the reason we struggle for tomorrow to be better than today.
Our charge in the midst of the battle for basic human dignity and national decency is to ensure that the case for education is not lost. Education generally and STEM education in particular are cornerstones of the American future. In the end we will win, but it is clear now that STEM education is not merely a cause worthy of advocacy, it is a battle for America’s future.