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May 18, 2012 4:46 PM No, Stop with the Tech Focus: Go to College and Major in the Humanities

By Daniel Luzer

With all of the focus policymakers currently have on getting more students to study Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, it’s worth pointing out that not everyone on thinks this is a responsible public policy direction.

According to an article by Vivek Wadhwa in the Washington Post:

The theory goes as follows: STEM degree holders will get higher pay upon graduation and get a leg up in the career sprint.
The trouble is that theory is wrong. In 2008, my research team at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. We found that they tended to be highly educated: 92 percent held bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent held higher degrees. But only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just two percent held them in mathematics. The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, healthcare, arts and the humanities.

As Wadhwa, a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford Law School, explains,

Gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was in was not a significant factor. Over the past two years, I have interviewed the founders of more than 300 Silicon Valley start-ups. The most common traits I have observed are a passion to change the world and the confidence to defy the odds and succeed.

And those traits, perhaps, are actually fostered by majoring in the liberal arts.

As Wadhwa says, “humanity majors make the best project managers, the best product managers, and, ultimately, the most visionary technology leaders.” Now, granted, he can’t actually prove this, but he makes a good case. Humanities majors, often, can come up with good ideas because they, perhaps better than the STEM geeks, get how people interact with technology and new ideas.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on May 19, 2012 2:26 AM:

    The problem is (on a cursory reading of this post) that they're inferring causality without warrant. People from privileged classes tend to study liberal arts more than people from other classes. This could well be because (1) that's where they know they plan meet their peers -- the upper crust is at Harvard and Yale, not Georgia Tech and Purdue (2) because they're privileged, they don't have to worry about studying something that will justify itself immediately in the job market.

    For more on these ideas, see Goyette and Mullen, "Who Studies the Arts and Sciences? Social Background and the Choice and Consequences of Undergraduate Field of Study" (2006).

    “Who Studies the Arts and Sciences? Social Background and the Choice and Consequences of Undergraduate Field of Study.”

  • boatboy_srq on May 21, 2012 9:39 AM:

    I agree with EOC, except that the "privileged classes" aren't attending liberal arts classes as much as one might think. Proof: Harvard Business School. The "privileged classes" are taking business courses just as much as the rest of the oi polloi because in the modern marketplace that's how you make money and get ahead in business.

    The part of Wadhwa's statement I find flabbergasting is this: The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, healthcare, arts and the humanities. Lumping business-related courses especially in with liberal arts is highly misleading. It's true that management doesn't often come from a STEM background, but a large part of that is mindset and training. Engineers and developers take STEM courses - but managers take business, accounting and finance classes because that's how you get ahead in business. Engineers tend to stay in engineering, as much because that's where their focus is as because that's where their talet lies. Business has long understood this, and over multiple decades has gone to great lengths to recognize - and where possible reward - engineers for staying where they are and doing what they trained to do; as a result, there aren't that many engineers in management because they're discouraged from that path by their proficiencies and by general corporate policy. By the same token, liberal arts, however valuable to personal development, is unlikely to yield the same success rate at the C-level as a business course, for comparable reasons: liberal arts aren't generally perceived as preparatory for a corporate career.

    Healthcare education has its own track, and that general heading covers everyone from MD candidates down to nurses' assistants so it, too, is somewhat misleading.

    It would be far more useful for Wadhwa to provide a breakdown of executives' education by the individual disciplines listed, rather than lumping them all in the "non-STEM" category: that way both the career paths and the class stratification would be clearer.