Whenever I want to scare the pants off myself, I just reread sections of “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman.
Specifically, the chapter in mind is “The Quiet Crisis”, which details the decline of America’s ability in the upcoming decades to compete with developing nations in the sciences and in engineering. Not only are the numbers of competitive graduates from India, China or Eastern Europe increasing, the numbers of graduates from American institutions is actually decreasing. To throw salt on the wound, the amount of funding in public education and in science institutions is also proportionally shrinking. As a result, many leading industry figures are beginning to question America’s ability to innovate, and thereby, maintain our ability to be leaders in the world economy.
While not explicitly saying so, Friedman hints that Americans have begun to stress the importance of encouraging their children to develop creativity at the cost of a solid academic foundation, while developing countries have spared no expense to drive future generations into pursuit of mastery of the basics such that they may grow into specialized professionals in scientific fields. “Creativity,” believes the average American soccer mom, “is more important than simply knowing how to do math equations.”
What an empty, stupid platitude.
No one doubts the importance of creativity in innovation. Without creativity, Edison could never have invented the light bulb, nor could Einstein have postulated his theories on the true shape of the universe. But Edison could never have created the light bulb without understanding electric current; nor could Einstein have articulated the nature of gravitational curvature without a thorough grasp of the theories of Leibniz and Newton.
Every television show, incompetant high school guidance counselor, and Dr. Phil self-help pamplet will tell parents to let their children pursue what they love, not what they need to learn – and parents support their children when they drop out of chemical engineering because they cry that Calculus is hard. For this reason, we have seen an increase in college graduates who only have expertise in humanities and soft sciences, who do not understand the supply chains they manage, or lead projects with a two word vocabruary of “milestone” and “deliverable”, or market a product without knowing what a single technical term on the press releases they write means. There’s an old joke about a corporate boat race in which a Japanese rowing team, comprising one manager and ten rowers, beats an American rowing team with one rower and ten managers – disgruntled, the American team fires the single rower. What was the saying again? Comedy imitates life?
We can’t keep this up. America needs to force science on its students. Science education must begin as soon as children can read. Mathematics education must never cease. University degrees must not be conferred to students without a technical or scientific major. We need this. It’s true that it is possible for a person to be technical and have technical knowledge without a degree, but persons capable of being self-motivated enough to teach themselves are far and few between. Are these harsh? Yes. Radical? Certainly, but we need this to stay competitive in a global marketplace where there are 5 billion other people gunning to take from us what we have worked so hard to build. And what of the students of humanities? Should not students be allowed to study philosophy, or the arts? Of course! This isn’t Fahrenheit 451. Descartes, Galileo, Aristotle, Leibniz and Archimedes were all philosophers – philosophy could very well have been the key to their genius. But all these men were scientists first. We must not discourage the study of the humanities; we must encourage it as a necessary supplement to hard sciences.
A philosophy professor once told me, “You can’t only study philosophy. You need to eat. If you don’t eat, you can’t be a philosopher, because you’d be dead.” The luxuries we have to learn what we want, to do what we want – these are afforded to us only because for the last forty years, we have dominated industry with our ingenuity and work ethic, but that will quickly change if we remain fat and complacent. We’re all about the easy way out, and we beg our teachers to give our children less homework so they have time to come home and live life and play “Grand Theft Auto” and watch MTV. It’s time we accepted facts. If we don’t work a little hard now, we’ll all work a lot harder later.