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Should We Force Our Kids to Major in Science or Engineering?

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My son, Zack, longs to be a rock star. With his parents' encouragement, he is majoring in the music industry and loving every second of his college life. Zack is well aware that he will most likely have to wait on tables as he pursues his dream, and he is fine with that. But Tom Friedman is not at all fine with it. Friedman, author, New York Times columnist, and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, would much prefer Zack to major in science or engineering.

I like Friedman, I really do, but if I catch him on television one more time beseeching our nation's youth, as if they are all cut from a single cloth, to collectively strive for degrees in math and science, I am going to puke. Then I am going to send Mr. Friedman a thoughtful, well-crafted letter excoriating him for his failure to acknowledge that some people have neither the acumen nor the interest to pursue these fields of endeavor. I will be able to write this letter due to the excellent education I received in the liberal arts, the demise of which I believe will be catastrophic to our nation and damaging to the psyches of millions of students who will choose to follow the trends of the job market instead of their own bliss.

Mr. Friedman is hardly the only one bemoaning our country's paucity of young scientific innovators. He may simply be the most ubiquitous. Has he forgotten that our country's greatest innovation was the creation of our country, and that our founders looked to the works of John Locke and Voltaire in their quest to form a perfect democracy? Does anyone still read Voltaire?

An astronomy class in college almost killed me. I took the course to fulfill a science requirement and I spaced out through every lecture. I also developed a No-Doze habit from the all-nighters I had to pull because my tutor was only available from midnight to four a.m.. My brain, which so nimbly danced through courses in literature of the Victorian Age or family structure among the Kalahari hunter-gatherers, could simply not calculate light years or plot stars on a glass dome. In fact, stars have forever lost their romance for me.

President Obama and leaders of industry have challenged colleges and universities to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers with majors in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The goal is daunting. Studies have shown that nearly 40% of students who declare engineering and science majors eventually switch majors or fail to get a degree altogether. David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor at the University of Illinois, calls this "the math-science death march."

An article in the November education supplement to the New York Times lamented the dropout rate of STEM students. The article was titled Why Science Majors Change Their Mind, and was appropriately subtitled It's just so darn hard. Foraging for blame, the authors pointed fingers at several deterrents to the pursuit of a degree in STEM. The obstacles to success included the overwhelming competition between freshmen, the rigorous freshman classes, the preponderance of lecture-based rather than discussion-based classes and the proliferation of grade inflation in the humanities that acts as an incentive for students to leave programs with a more draconian grading system.

Conspicuously absent from their argument, however, is the idea that many of these students should probably not have been majoring in science to begin with, but had been encouraged by well-meaning parents or teachers to pursue a profession that will be sorely needed in our changing world. If students who like science and want to make it their livelihood can't cut it, how are the right-brained artistic souls among us supposed to cope?

I cannot argue against the fact that the world has changed. Ours is no longer a manufacturing or agricultural economy. We live in an information and technology-based society, and those who are comfortable working in those fields may have an edge. But I also can't help believing, (or is it hoping?) that the greatest achievements in any field result from thoughtful conversations across fields, and that thoughtful conversation is a byproduct of a liberal arts education.

A liberal arts education allows us to learn to think for ourselves. Armed with knowledge and experience in a variety of social contexts, we don't become mere receptacles of ideas and beliefs passed to us from parents or teachers. We are able to analyze and synthesize a broad range of information in order to formulate a core belief system that is uniquely our own and worth fighting for.

I am not naïve. I fully expect a barrage of comments from liberal arts graduates who are now earning $8/hour working in Walmart. I understand your frustration. The science and engineering majors seem to get all the jobs. But does this mean we should all be scientists? Today's music industry bears no resemblance to the once-lucrative business of creating and marketing albums. Albums are made in basements today. Marketing occurs on the Internet and no one buys CDs any more. But forcing my son into engineering would have been like forcing Niagara Falls to flow up! His is a passion that keeps his soul fed and gives his life purpose. I wouldn't think of denying him that. And selfishly, I don't want a depressed kid on my hands who is stuck in a field that doesn't suit him.

Not every engineer is Bill Gates. Some earn very modest salaries. And not every musician has to wait tables forever. Some support families and take vacations. Given the pace of technological and social change, who knows that the science one learns in college won't be outdated within a few years? Wouldn't it be advantageous to carry with you the skills to adapt and rethink?

Yes, America needs scientific innovators. But a civil society, the society that we aspire to be, cannot thrive without its writers and artists and social scientists and historians. And three-time Pulitzer prize-winning journalists.