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Dori Jones Yang

Dori Jones Yang

Posted: November 15, 2010 10:48 AM

You've heard that you need to talk to your children about drugs, about sexting, about the dangers of strangers on the Internet. But many parents don't talk to their teenagers about what they want to be when they grow up -- and how to prepare for it.

"Follow your dream." "Do what you love." These are mantras in today's America. We push our kids to do their homework and study for the SATs to get into a good college. But after that, many of us tell our kids they can study whatever they want. Literature. Theater. Art. All the fun stuff.

I myself majored in history, and I used to defend the importance of a liberal arts education. "It teaches you how to think," the line goes. "It creates good citizens with a broad base of knowledge."

That it does. But the United States is in the midst of a terrible recession, and the daunting rates of unemployment -- and underemployment -- make it harder than ever to find a decent job. America's position as the leading economic powerhouse of the world is slipping, and no one seems to know how to create jobs.

Fareed Zakaria recently focused on this problem, both in TIME magazine and on his TV special, "Restoring the American Dream." One of his central points is that jobs come from innovation. Our economic strength comes from technology, and that's where much of the job growth is going to be. An education in politics or creative writing does not prepare you for a career in technology. Engineering does.

Walk into any engineering class in an American university, and you'll notice a striking pattern: many of the students speak with foreign accents. Among engineering graduate students, more than half are foreign-born. Our great universities are training future generations of Chinese, Indians, and others in the most advanced fields of medical research, biotechnology, electronics, and computer programming, while the children of Americans are holding great debates across campus in philosophy.

A wealthy society can afford to support artists, musicians, novelists, and scholars. The United States has long done so. Our movies are watched around the world, and in jazz and rock we set the pace. Our universities are the best. But as our star peaks and begins to fade, we need to realize that fine actors and brilliant historians cannot keep up the power and wealth of the United States.

Not every student can handle calculus. But let's not assume our kids just can't do it. When these courses get difficult, don't suggest they drop the class; challenge them to tough it out.

Here's the ideal: Study something practical with a clear path to a job. Then minor in a fun subject. Or major in something fun but pursue summer jobs that prepare you for a career. This was the advice my dad gave me when I was seventeen, and I grumbled about it, as teenagers do. But I listened. I majored in history but spent every summer working for newspapers, to prepare for a career in journalism, back when there were paying jobs in journalism. My daughter majored in computer science, with a second major in East Asian area studies.

It tore my heart when my daughter called home in agony, certain she could not pass her classes in advanced algorithms. She found the liberal arts classes so much easier. But right after college, despite the Great Recession, she got a high-paying job. Many of her friends had to move back home, worked in restaurants, or struggled in vain to find a job, any job. Those were the ones who had fun majoring in psychology, politics, or English.

Students of every socio-economic background should take at least some practical courses in college. Those from poor families understand this, but sometimes their parents assume that simply getting a college diploma will be enough. Rich kids will end up on Mom and Dad's couch -- and payroll -- if they don't figure out a way to make a living. And middle class kids, the vast majority, will find a much easier transition to the workplace if they have at least one course in marketing or technical writing.

The big thinkers like Zakaria can see clearly: As a society, the United States will lose its edge and go downhill if we can't educate our children to innovate in a high-tech world. Many Asian parents see this and push their kids in that direction. Too many American parents encourage their children to follow their dreams.

If all our kids follow their dreams, at the expense of preparing for a practical career, we will speed up our own decline as a society. Then the cries of "Where did all the jobs go?" will be plaintive and in vain.

We've been living in a dream world. We need to shake our kids and wake them up.