Silicon Valley’s $300M donation to STEM education is not what it seems

The largest tech firms are donating $300 million to STEM education. They stand to reap far more than that

Many educators cheered the news, announced earlier this week, that a consortium of tech firms had pledged a collective $300 million towards bettering STEM education in the United States. A New York Times article on their donation spoke of it in glowing terms — a trade group executive described its potential to advance “opportunity,” while Ivanka Trump called STEM skills “foundational.” The positive press about a charitable gift is probably not too surprising. Most of us have a gut reaction to the word “charity.” It implies goodwill, and a philanthropic spirit. Because of this cultural understanding of charitable giving as “pure,” giving is generally tax-deductible.

Yet, as with any monetary relationship, charity is a form of control. It also teaches an idea about the way the world works — about what kinds of things are important to fund and what aren’t, about how social change happens, and about who is responsible for “fixing” the world’s problems. Charity’s answer to that last question, usually, is “the rich.”

While philanthropy is near-universally thought of as a “good” thing, a society that ran its social welfare state solely through charity would be a nightmare. The problem is that because the rich are interested in advancing their agendas, they generally only donate to prospects that fund those agendas. Learning the arts or the humanities, or learning to be a critical thinker, are useless — perhaps even harmful — skills to creating supple, pliant, obedient employees for the world’s corporations. (That is a big reason why you rarely hear of any corporations donating vast sums to education in those money-poor disciplines.)

When we let donors dictate which educational programs are well-funded and which aren’t, we cede control of our values and our minds to the whims of the wealthy. We, in effect, become their subordinates. We lose the collective value of democratic control, of living in a world in which all of us— not merely corporate donors and the foundations they fund — have a say as to how education function and how society operates.

But perhaps you are a centrist or a conservative who does not take issue with the anti-democratic maxim that we must leave rich technocrats to oil the gears of progress. Even if you think that the rich deserve the power that comes with their wealth — and that the rest of us poors should have no say in how our lives go — this STEM education gift should still alarm you. That’s because these tech companies don’t really care about your children, or their education. They just want to pay lower wages to future engineers.

Because there is an ongoing shortage of STEM skills, those professions’ wages are comparably quite high. Glassdoor, a job and recruiting site that tracks wages for different professions, pegs the average salary for a Bay Area software engineer to be over $124,000.  The comparatively high salaries of middle-management tech workers has fueled the income inequality of the Bay Area and driven gentrification, both here and in other cities with big tech sectors like New York. And while the tech companies often seem proud of their hand in fueling an unequally distributed economic boom in the Bay Area, they are also desperate to end that, by paying their workers less if possible — ideally, much, much less.

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