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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The case for studying almost anything in college – NOT!

This opinion piece (by a fourth-year architect at Cornell) tries to make the argument that one should study something that you love rather than something practical in college. All things being equal, I would agree that it is an advantage to be studying something one loves, but if there is zero demand for what you love then you need to be one hell of an entrepreneur to create a demand. Or you better learn something practical. Or how about this for an idea: study something practical while you are studying Comparative Literature. Add a double major in Mechanical Engineering to your degree in Medieval History to do your part in reviving our economy while ensuring your own independent future.

The study of English may teach critical thinking and probably does teach one to better express oneself. Yet that is not sufficient. How about also learning advanced engineering mathematics, electrical engineering, biomechanical science, supply and demand theory, logic and statistical analysis in college? There is little evidence that many Liberal Arts majors are spending much time on these more practical studies in their 4-6 years of college today. The argument is, of course, if one is interested in Liberal Arts, then one may not be interested in the more practical fields. That is fair, and probably accurate. But this won’t address the fact that an overwhelming number of our college graduates are woefully unequipped to enter the job market of the 21st century.

If you were lost on a winter backpacking trip, would you rather have learned the basics of starting a fire or be able to debate if Chaucer should be credited as the first author to demonstrate the artistic legitimacy of the vernacular Middle English? I am all for broad learning but if you have to pick only one, you should think long and hard about learning the practical subject first.

Critical thinking is already a competitive advantage for America. On average, we ask “why,” question assumptions, recheck data and test obvious answers more than they do in China.

But these days, it takes so much more. We need to be able to produce products and services competitively in order to sustain our way of life. That means a work force with more engineers, scientists, welders, technicians, inventors, entrepreneurs. And an economy that is geared more to selling goods and services outside our borders than borrowing from the Chinese to make ourselves a bit more comfortable at home.

After World War II, America had over half of the World’s manufacturing capacity. Much of the world was in disarray and much of the world was under the control of wealth-destroying communist tyrannies. It was a much easier time for America to compete. The United States lost far fewer lives and property than most of the developed world and was left standing king of the hill. If you had a college degree, any college degree, you were golden because only about 6% of those older than 25 had college degrees at that time.

By 2005, the percentage of those in the US who graduated from college reached an all-time high of 27.7%.

Today we have an innovative society (partly due to our culture and willingness to try new things and challenge the status quo). But we have gone from an exporting economy to a massive importing society. Our consumers have been willing to borrow to the hilt to buy goods built in China and study Leisure Studies, Dance, Ethnomusicology, and Philosophy at our expensive colleges.

Our economy is lost in the woods right now and up a cold creek. So let’s spend less time on Shakespeare for the time-being and encourage more college students to learn to start a fire that will light up our economy.

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