Saturday, October 22, 2011

Don’t study engineering or science

Thomas Friedman writes today in his column, One Country Two Revolutions

if one result of the downsizing of Wall Street is that more of America’s best and brightest math and physics students decide to go into science and real engineering rather than financial engineering, the country will be a whole lot better off.

The rest of the article is a glowing account of Silicon Valley and some of the inspiring people he wants us to emulate.  Just for fun, I looked up the education histories of the people he cites:

  • Alan Cohen, VP at networking company Nicira (MBA, MA Int’l studies)
  • Scott Wilson, designer mentioned in Fast Company (B.A. Design)
  • Alexis Ringwald, founder of an education startup (B.A. Political Science)
  • Marc Benioff, CEO of (B.S.B.A. Entrepreneurship)
  • Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn (B.S. Economics from Wharton)
  • Jagdish Bhagwati Professor at Columbia is of course is a BA Economics.

(By the way, Mr. Friedman himself has an undergraduate degree in Mediterranean Studies)

Not a single one of the people he praises is an engineer or scientist!

Like I said after watching the education movie 2 Million Minutes:  Science and engineering are important, but by themselves they are technical skills, like welding or car repair, that can be mastered by anyone with some discipline and training.  You need to be much smarter than that. I’m reminded of the common entrepreneurial wisecrack: “If I need an engineering degree, I’ll hire one”.

China and India have plenty of engineers and scientists.  To compete in the future, we need innovators and risk-takers, along with a culture that encourages people to try new things, even things the “experts” and regulators think are too risky or likely to fail.  The future belongs to people with curiosity, open minds, willingness to change, an ability to empathize with people of different backgrounds, work well with others, and a society with enough flexibility and freedom to allow for many ways of getting there.

If science and engineering are your passion, by all means go for it. But if you (or your kids) are studying it just because experts like Thomas Friedman say you should, then you’re missing the whole point.