A few weeks ago, I was talking to one of my best friends Newman about the U.S. education system. I’d recently watched Peter Thiel, Michael Roth and others debated the merits and shortcomings of higher education on PBS and we were typing over gchat about whether our system was broken, worth it, and what needed to be done.
At one point Newman said something really poignant that at first I didn’t get. He said: we don’t build things anymore. Being deeply rooted in NYC’s tech start-up world, I was almost offended. But he’s right and my vision is skewed. Outside of the recent tech surge in New York, California, and a few other states, innovative industries are few and far between in the U.S. Our universities tend to funnel our best and brightest towards traditional careers, in the John Adams’ sense of traditional, where age-old concepts and rules are laid out before you to be learned and interpreted, but never broken or changed. To build something new from scratch requires entrepreneurial spirit, but in most cases it also requires a technical and/or scientific skill set that has slipped to the back Bunsen burner of the American curriculum.
A current law student himself, Newman went on to say we don’t need more lawyers, we need people who can create and innovate and build. And he’s right again. Neither of us are arguing that we don’t need law schools, lawyers, or firms. We do and will continue to into perpetuity. The point is that the proportion of college undergrads pursuing law, corporate management, business, and political science degrees to those interested in applied science and math cannot be so lopsided.
So, do we do away with the four-year college campus experience that at times it might feel like an extended summer camp? Absolutely not. Do we need to shift some monetary and departmental focus and reward towards engaging and expanding the talented groups of young people who pursue engineering and computer science degrees? Absolutely. Grants and loans should be created in the vein of federal programs like the Stafford, Pell, and Perkins, available for the study of biochemistry and advanced mathematics. New departments should emphasize the entrepreneurial application of data science. Career fairs and alumni events should present the opportunities to immediately make a profound impact upon graduation in May.
The college education needs to innovate by pushing and promoting those next generation innovators that it has the power to create. In a global landscape where other countries far outpace the U.S. in graduation rates for advanced math and science degrees, our American universities should realize that their undergrads have not lost the ability to build, they’ve just forgotten the emphasis on the need to build. We built railroads, we built space ships, but in an old-fashioned education system, founded under the belief that being a judge was the ultimate career goal, universities must recommit to teaching skill sets around what we are capable of building now, before someone else does it first.
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