Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The case against the hard sciences

Lately, I have come across a number of stories and blog posts that, at least implicitly, knock college degrees in the humanities in favor of degrees in the hard sciences.  An example is this one from the Washington Post:
An old joke in academia gets at the precarious economics of majoring in the humanities.
The scientist asks, “Why does it work?”
The engineer asks, “How does it work?”
The English major asks, “Would you like fries with that?”

But exactly what an English major makes in a lifetime has never been clear, and some defenders of the humanities have said that their students are endowed with “critical thinking” and other skills that could enable them to catch up to other students in earnings.
Turns out, on average, they were wrong.
Over a lifetime, the earnings of workers who have majored in engineering, computer science or business are as much as 50 percent higher than the earnings of those who major in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology, according to an analysis by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
“I don’t want to slight Shakespeare,” said Anthony Carnevale, one of the report’s authors. “But this study slights Shakespeare.”
From a purely financial standpoint, they are correct.  Mostly.

Let me explain.

My own undergrad degree is in one of the humanities: National Security Policy Studies, which at Ohio State was a branch of International Studies.  But I entered that after two years in civil engineering.

I picked out civil engineering as a major during my senior year in high school.  Though math and science were not my favorite things on earth, I did enjoy them.  I enjoyed studying roads, too, since I was a little kid. And I figured I could make more money at engineering than I could at my primary interests: international studies/history and music.

There was only one problem: I hated it.  It turned out to be the worst decision I ever made.

At Ohio State, as in most engineering programs, they completely immersed you in hard science and math.  Nothing else.  Absolutely nothing else.  After a while, it got utterly boring and suffocating.  I longed for the study of international politics and grew to hate science and math.  My grades suffered as a result.  In fact, I got by far my best grades in engineering on the few occasions I had to take breaks from it in such subjects as Classical Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, the latter of which would become my focus after I switched majors.

I fought on for two years before I gave up on civil engineering and made the long-overdue switch to international studies, where my true love and my true talents lay.  By then, though my international studies GPA would be high, my overall GPA was toast.

Not surprisingly, there are very few jobs available in National Security Policy Studies, which is how I ended up in law, something else that I enjoy.  And something that I like to think I'm good at.

So I end up proving the economic point about hard sciences degrees, except for on thing: I never would have made that big money in engineering, because I would only have been at best a mediocre engineer, because I hated the immersion in it.

That's the reality for most people.  You won't make money in something if you hate it.  Not everyone is cut out to be an engineer, scientist or physicist.  It's not a matter of intelligence or lack of same; it's a matter of personal taste. You have to truly love a hard science to be good at it.  And most people just don't love science and math.  I like science and math, but that is not enough.

As it is, I am exploring the possibility of getting a PhD in classical studies, another one of those "worthless" humanities about as far from a hard science as you can get, simply because I love ancient Rome so much and spend most of my free time reading about it.  And I could bring to it a lawyer's eye for evidence to help piece together some of the mysteries of antiquity.

What I would do with it professionally is anyone's guess, but that's beside the point.  It's not one of the "badly needed" hard sciences, but hard sciences are not what I am about or what I am best at.  I know them enough to navigate through them in a court case, but I don't want them to be my everyday life.  I can contribute much more to society by the practice of law or the study of ancient Rome than by being a mediocre engineer.

That is most people, which is why pushing people into hard sciences is a very bad idea.  You'll end up with a bunch of unhappy people who are mediocre engineers.  Immersion is, in my opinion, a bad idea for the hard sciences, because the immersion in nothing but the hard sciences makes it easier to forget that technical theory sometimes doesn't work in real life.

I will never forget the argument I had with a engineer for Microsoft about the XBox 360 and its persistent overheating problems.  The engineer blamed the consumers' use of the console, saying, "You can't put the XBox's kind of computing power in an entertainment center."

My response: "What did you think people would do with this entertainment console? Build altars in their living rooms for it?"

The engineer was completely befuddled.

Don't be like one of those Fallout Vaults.  Don't push people into hard sciences.  Don't rip them if they don't choose one of the hard sciences.  Some people want to be scientists and some don't.  Let them choose what they think is best for them.


  1. I agree. When I was on staff at Purdue, a friend of mine, who was an undergraduate, complained that he wanted to take music appreciation as a course. I told him that is why elective courses exist. He said I didn't understand. He was an electrical engineering major. The department set out what courses its students took both within and without the major. Electives were to be used for math, etc. The concenpt of "universe" within "university" was lost, I guess, on that department. Their students' knowledge and thinking skills would have been improved w/other academic influences. For purposes of full disclosure, I was a political science major at DePauw. And I would not post this as "anonymous," but, liberal arts major that I was, I cannot figure out the techno-crap of posting with a URL. So I am, marksmall2001@yahoo.com

  2. I never left, VG. Just changed formats. Did you honestly think I was going to let some San Francisco Marxists or George Soros minions shut me up?

    Check out Military History Online. I think you'll like the Java Sea article there.

  3. Heh.

    Well who would have thought? Very nice article.