07/11/2012 05:09 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2012

Opinion: Engineers Aren't Smarter Than English Majors

By Meredith Wade

There are a million different types of intelligence, most of which are pretty difficult to quantify. Shocking, I know. But it’s amazing how many people act in a way that doesn’t acknowledge this, and a little scary that a lot of those people are in positions of major influence over the way young people master and utilize intellect.

I want you to think back to the time you were in preschool, kindergarten, probably most of primary school, maybe even into middle and high school. I’m willing to bet that when you talked about potential careers, the only fields in which your teachers and peers pointed out opportunities for innovation were sciences or engineering. The glory of discovery was something to be sought out in scientific experimentation and exploration: finding the cure for cancer, making contact with life on other planets, designing environmentally-friendly vehicles.

The typical student ends up with the idea that the humanities and arts aren’t a major component in advancing society, and are thus less salient than math, engineering, and science. And this tends to make people’s perceived hierarchy of intelligence pretty skewed, usually with engineers at the very top and English majors at the bottom of the heap. This creates friction because more and more people–at least those in the high school and college age bracket–are encouraged to pursue engineering as a way of demonstrating superior intellect and discipline, which leads to no short supply of angst for those who struggle to engage with the subject.

Engineering is great and necessary, and I think it’s safe to assume that most engineers are pretty smart, but it’s incredibly important to see the genius and relevance in other fields.

My Arabic teacher is from Morocco, and she loves telling us stories about her experience in Moroccan schools. One thing she’s emphasized countless times is her love for the flexibility that exists in American schooling in contrast with the Moroccan system. There, students take a monstrous exam before they begin the equivalent of high school to establish their major (yes, a major in high school). Those who perform the best on the exam are placed on a science-heavy track with the assumption that they’ll pursue either engineering or medicine at university, those below them are stuck with language arts (which is not very well-respected), and those who perform poorly are placed in vocational studies with the intent to go straight to work once they graduate.

The issue with this system is that it underscores the link between math/science/engineering and intelligence. Had my Arabic teacher not received a scholarship to an American university, she’d be practicing medicine back in Morocco, which is not a bad lot to end up with, but she’s far happier having discovered a passion for teaching.

American students are lucky that the powers that be don’t correlate intelligence with quantitative fields so overtly, and that undergraduates are encouraged to faff around in their first few years at college to gain experience with many different subject areas. We’re also lucky that our futures aren’t dictated by a single test administered at the ripe old age of 15. But socially, that skewed hierarchy and the pressure to either doggedly pursue science or be branded as inadequate are persistent specters for us. So next time you’re discussing the newest advances in quantum physics, remember to spare a word or three for the Einsteins of social studies, languages, and art, too.

About Meredith:

Meredith is a guest contributor to She is a rising high school senior in Salt Lake City, Utah, and interested in history. She writes, "To me, though, history acts as a really great excuse to examine and understand many different facets of human society, and it allows me to throw myself into things like literature, art history, and sociology." She loves listening to (and, less frequently, making) music, dancing, and studying Arabic. To read more from Meredith, check out her blog here.

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