Is your child prepared for the future? Part 3

Welcome back! This is part 3 of our series on how the future might mess with our beloved kids. In Part 1 we explored success, satisfaction, motivation, and passion, and how confabulation of those concepts might not bode well, and in Part 2 we faced the coming explosion of automation and robotics, and how the world of work is going to change.

@saadandalib via Flickr

@saadandalib via Flickr

Is your child prepared for the future? Part 3

Which is a better education: liberal arts or STEM?

So far in our attempt to explore our children's future, we've identified that we need to help them understand motivation and find a career-path that interests them enough to work hard, overcome failures and set-backs, and develop passion slowly over time. We've also come to understand that we should steer them away from automatable jobs, and towards careers that depend on so-called "soft skills," like empathy, negotiation, and persuasion.

But when it comes time for them to design their educational path to accomplish those goals and have the best shot at a sustainable career, what does that look like? What should the high school and college curriculum be for future-minded young adults?

If the prevailing wisdom is any guide, then every high-school and college student should be focused on science, technology, engineering, and math, aka STEM. Common rhetoric also suggests that an old-fashioned liberal arts education is essentially worthless, and that majors in English or philosophy can do little more than get jobs as teachers of those disciplines.

However, let's think about this critically. Why is there such a strong push towards STEM?

The answer most given is "jobs." Indeed, Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, has said “I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees…So when they get out of school, they can get a job.” Many echo this sentiment, and President Obama has funneled nearly a billion dollars to improve STEM education in the USA. Some data support this effort, as some surveys show that employers are more interested in STEM grads than liberal arts grads, by a factor of 10:1.

Another oft-quoted reason for STEM is global competitiveness. It's frequently pointed out that Asian countries are graduating far more STEM students than the USA, and that this is undermining the ability of our nation to maintain our technological innovation.

And yet there is data that contradicts these arguments for focused, early STEM education.

For example, the Economic Policy Institute found that less than half of STEM graduates actually find jobs in their field of study. And Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post describes that most Asian countries are now realizing that a STEM-only education puts students at a global DIS-advantage, and are trying to incorporate liberal arts into their educational systems to "nourish a student’s complete intelligence."

When asked about the specific things they are looking for in job applicants, employers overwhelmingly cite a positive attitude, communication skills, and an ability to work as a team. Furthermore, an AACU survey recently showed that 93% of employers surveyed agreed that "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate's] undergraduate major."

These desires by current employers echo what we know will be important in the future when automation assumes more and more responsibility in our economy.

Even traditional, vocationally-focused institutions such as West Point and the Culinary Institute of America recognize the need for a broad education. There generals and chefs, respectively, believe that young people must be trained to think broadly, operate in the context of other societies and cultures, learn about logic, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Quiz: which pathway--a STEM-focused education at a research university or a liberal arts education at a smaller college--has more focus on the skills we know to be important in our economy, both now and in the future? Such as:

  • cross-domain learning
  • evaluative and rational thinking
  • creativity
  • oral and written communication
  • problem solving and pattern intelligence
  • quantitative and numerical understanding
  • research and data synthesis
  • independent judgment and decision-making
  • organizational and time management
  • teamwork and empathy
  • negotiation and persuasion
  • cross-cultural tolerance and understanding

While a STEM education might hit a few of those items, a liberal arts education could address them all.

I know this first hand, having entered a large research university in a niche STEM major (microbiology), and focused all of my effort on that one program. I took only the bare minimum of required courses outside STEM, and always chose more quantitative and "sciency" electives. While this intense focus helped me get into an exclusive graduate program and a career in the sciences, I realized as an adult how much I missed, and have embarked on my own autodidactic liberal arts education to rectify my overly-focused past.

So, am I agruing that a STEM eduation is a bad idea? Of course not. Am I arguing that all liberal arts programs are best? Resoundingly, no.

I am arguing the following two things:

  • While a STEM education may help you get a job in that specific field immediately upon graduating with a baccalaureate, bolstering it with humanities and "soft-skills" coursework is essential.
  • While a liberal arts education may help you gather the soft skills of value in this and the future economy, bolstering it with quantitative and practical coursework is essential.

There is data to support this "double-threat education" approach. Over the last two decades, the most consistent job growth has been in jobs that require both math and social skills (see image below). As quoted in the New York Times:

“If it’s just technical skill, there’s a reasonable chance it can be automated, and if it’s just being empathetic or flexible, there’s an infinite supply of people, so a job won’t be well paid,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s the interaction of both that is virtuous.”

(Click the image to head to for the interactive version of this data!)

(Click the image to head to for the interactive version of this data!)

The primary argument for STEM is that our economy is technology-driven. This is a fundamental misunderstanding. Our economy, and indeed all jobs, are people driven. People use and want technology. So really, you must understand people, and you must understand technology.

And I would also add: you must understand business.

We live in a market-focused society. Like it or not, our country is driven by business, and as such understanding business, entrepreneurship, marketing, equity, accounting, and so on, are instrumental for everyone's career. Business is simply an exchange of value, and this value exchange drives everything. Your cash for a company's products, your time and labor for a paycheck, your taxes for government services, your charitable donation for feelings of altruism, etc. I didn't realize this until well into my science graduate degree, and I ended up getting a second graduate degree in business to fill in the gaps of my knowledge. If I had incorporated some business courses as an undergrad, that graduate business degree might not have been needed.

So, we've established that today's students need to seek comprehension of multiple disciplines:

  • Science / technology / math
  • Human nature / humanities
  • Business

That's a lot to pack into one undergraduate degree? Will there be time to focus on any one thing?

Nope. Aptly, this describes a liberal arts education, but with less esoteric philosophy and more multi-disciplinary practicality. Sure, a "major" will have to be established, but ideally it will be in a program that is flexible and at a school that is supportive, permitting lots of classes to be sprinkled around. A true "liberal arts" degree.

I can hear you howling, "But my kid needs to get a job right out of college!" I have to break something to you: college is the new high school. Your child, to be competitive in the global market, is almost certainly going to have to get a graduate degree. That is when specialization should occur.

And before you argue that lack of specialization in college will limit graduate school options, here's some data:

  • Proportionally speaking, liberal arts colleges send more of their undergraduates on to Ph.D.'s than all the large, distinguished research universities.
  • While only 3% of undergrads graduate from liberal arts schools, 20% of scientists in the National Academy of Sciences came from liberal arts institutions.

Provided a student learns some fundamentals about a subject during their college degree, there is no reason that they couldn't go to a graduate program in that subject. Granted, if a student graduates with no coursework in math, I doubt they'd get accepted into Ph.D. mathematics program, but that doesn't mean that a math major should have their entire education studying numbers.

Practically speaking, how should these conclusions be applied?

How will I advise my pre-teen daughter?

(note, I said advise...I'm not under any illusions she will actually listen to me)

In High School

@conspirator vis Flickr

@conspirator vis Flickr

High school, in a word, sucks. You have very little freedom or autonomy, and the government legislates that you have to learn certain things. There's lots of standardized testing, exasperated teachers, and toxic students who would rather not learn anything. Then there's bullying, cliques, gossip, and the whole coming-of-age thing.

Good times.

And yet there are precious opportunities to begin crafting your life-path. Depending on the school, elective courses might be offered. As described above, this is a chance to explore your interests, and bolster the foundations of knowledge. In particular, "practical" math (like statistics), communication skills (writing, speaking), and business acumen (economics, entrepreneurship) would be very useful.

However, beware the "high achievement" trap. High school high achievers (HAs) believe that they need to get straight-As, top scores on the SAT and ACT, assume leadership roles in extracurricular activities, play sports, carry out charitable and community service work, perform a musical instrument, etc., etc. All in service of getting into a "good" college.

I call bullshit. If all the HAs are applying to the same colleges, and they all have the same achievements, how will the colleges differentiate them? By one-point differences on SATs? By one-hour differences in community service? By one-hundredth grade point differences? That kind of thinking leads to severe deterioration of teenage quality of life. It leads to stress, depression, and burnout. It eliminates the time available to explore, play, socialize, and grow.

And it eliminates the time to do something interesting.

The author Cal Newport studied high-performing high school students, and found that almost universally they took fewer and less challenging classes, did not necessarily have perfect GPAs, and with their free time did things that they found interesting, eventually becoming deeply involved in one particular thing. Newport described this as the kind of thing you'd want to do on a Saturday morning, willingly, excitedly, and voluntarily. Whether that be writing stories, pursuing a musical instrument, conducting a civic project, or scientific research. It turns out that the happiest, most successful, college-bound high school students make time to follow their curiosity. When that curiosity leads to something interseting to talk about in a college application essay and interview, the probability of acceptance goes way, way up.

Thus in high school you should explore multiple classes, but not over-extend yourself. Pursue an extracurricular side-interest that you can really delve into. Something that will challenge but engage you--something stimulating that will motivate you to spend time on it, and make you enthusiastic to talk about.

Between High School and College

There has been a lot written about the positive benefits of taking a so-called "gap year" off before college. The illustrious Harvard is often credited with being one of the first institutions to promote a gap year, even going to far as to propose it in their letters of admission! And data suggests that students who take a gap year have higher college graduation rates with higher GPAs.

Gap years were less common when I was young, and I did not take a year off. However, I can see the potential benefits if structured well. Taking a year off to play video games or back-pack around Europe might sound like a nice break (and certainly could be for a burnt-out high achiever), but provides questionable value long-term. Similarly, simply getting an entry-level job flipping burgers or staffing retail won't bring you any worthwhile experience (besides the understanding that such jobs are not desirable).

On the other hand, if you intend to use the gap year for something specific, there could be significant long-term value. This could be converting the Saturday-project into a year-long affair, or doing something completely different and new, such as intensive independent studying under a university professor, moving to a foreign country to work and learn the language and culture, shadowing or interning in a specific career of interest, pursuing a creation project such as a novel or artwork, or starting and running a small business. Those kind of pursuits could really be beneficial and provide you treasured memories, experience, and self-knowledge.

Regardless, you should apply to colleges as normal and upon acceptance seek deferred enrollment, so there would be a plan for re-entry when your gap year was over.

In College

It should be abundantly clear now that I think that a college education should be more liberal than vocational. College is a delicate dance of pragmatism (need to get a job eventually) and passion (desire to learn about things of interest). Too much either way could impinge future options. College should be about exploring and opening your mind while fundamental skills are strengthened. The moment you decide “this is it” and lock yourself down educationally, you remove the ability to grow outside of a very constrained field. What if you would have taken a class that changed your direction and made you impassioned in a way you can't conceive of?

Prospective college students tend to obsess about which school to go to, and this will be guided by a host of factors: money, interests, friends, geography, skills, experience, GPA, etc. While a small-to-medium, private liberal arts college may be more appropriate for the type of education I envision, a self-directed learner could certainly get a liberal arts degree in a large research university.

However, the key is "self directed." Large research universities are notorious for lecture classes with hundreds or even thousands of students, where an underpaid, underexperienced, undergrad acts as the teaching assistant and does the bulk of the small-group work. I experienced this at my university, and was even the TA for undergraduate organic chemistry while an undergraduate myself...I fear the students in my class didn't get the education they deserve. A medium-sized research universtity might be a better option, where the entry-level class size is smaller and taught by actual professors, yet there are still a plethora of independent research opportunities if STEM subjects are your primary interest.

Regardless of what school you attend, it's the course-work and extracurricular activities that matter. The fundamental goal of a college education should be to learn how to lead and how to solve interesting problems (hat tip to Seth Godin). As suggested above, this comes from pursuing a multi-part foundation of knowledge in STEM, humanities, and business, pushing outside of comfort zones, and having enough time to pursue something of interest, independently.

From a coursework perspective, regardless of a major, applied quantitative subjects would be exceptionally beneficial. Subjects like economics or statistics help keep your options open, as those domains are applicable essentially everywhere. It's also easier to go from a more quantitative to a less quantitative focus, versus the other way around. Finally, employers are generally more interested in those with demonstrable quantitative skills than those without.

Communication is another skill applicable across all fields. In particular, the ability to write well--clearly and persuasively--is a skill that can be transformative and empowering. These days everybody writes (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, emails, etc.) but very few write well. I have witnessed the power of learning good writing skills: I know someone who gained a masters degree that focused largely on communication and persuasion skills, and used those new-found skills to launch into an entirely new direction, start a new company, and achieve professional independence. Such is the power of good communication.

Perhaps the most important advice about college is not to take on debt. Careers are long, and your first job, particularly if it is straight out of college, better be able to pay your bills. Being saddled with a huge load of debt will hinder your options as a new graduate, whether it be choosing to find a job or to go to graduate school.

In Early Jobs

Happiness and self knowledge grow only in the sweet soil of time. As discussed in Part 1, believing that your first job--particularly if it's right out of college--will be awesome and life will be unicorns and rainbows is a recipe for disappointment.

It's better to look at early jobs as opportunities for learning and further skill development. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has described his early career strategy:

I went where the energy and money was. I figured I could work my way up from the bottom and learn along the way...I was [ambivalent] about what types of jobs I did so long as they taught me something that improved my odds for something better, no matter what that better thing was. I saw my corporate days as a practical education for whatever I would later do on my own.

You should be able to look back on a job and point to what you've learned, how you've grown, and what skills you developed that can be applied elsewhere. These lessons are available even in the most menial of jobs, although arguably they can be learned quickly in jobs of that nature. In particular, top priority lessons are the human interaction skills of teamwork, empathy, negotiation, persuasion, and communication.

Once you've stopped learning, once you've gotten bored -- move on.

And how do you get those early jobs? Two ways by answering two questions:

  • What have you done?
  • Who do you know?

In the same way colleges look for high-schoolers that have something interesting to talk about (e.g., the Saturday project), employers look for applicants that can point to a history of generous, talented, extraordinary contributions. Simply showing up, punching a clock, getting good grades, or getting picked isn't going to cut it. You need to have a way to differentiate yourself. This is where the Saturday-project, the activity outside the classroom or the boundaries of the job, comes into play. If you pursue your interests, and do something interesting, more doors will be open to you.

Furthermore, while there's nothing wrong with applying for a posted job to a faceless email or website, the probability of getting "picked" by that route is exceptionally slim. I've seen data that suggests that only about 1-2% of applicants get interviews, but in my experience it's much, much lower. Furthermore, about 80% of the job openings are never advertised. How do you find those jobs?

@sjcockell  via Flickr

@sjcockell  via Flickr


Networking gets you in front of people, allows you to develop a personal connection, and, most importantly, differentiates you from the faceless resume stack. My favorite strategy in this regard is emailing someone in a job/company/career/discipline you are interested in, and asking if you can have a 30 minute slot to learn more about what they do as you plan your path. I call these "informational interviews" because they are not (and should not) be linked to an open position. When you go into it, you don't know if there is an opening at the company, or if there is you pretend you don't know about it until the person you're meeting brings it up.

In your meeting, you have a nice chat, ask lots of insightful questions, and then thank them politely. At no time do you ask for a job, or about any openings. If you do, you've just ruined the meeting, because everybody likes to give advice, but nobody likes to be put on the spot. At the end of your informational interview, you ask one simple question: "Is there anyone else you'd recommend I reach out to?" This is the gold: you will likely get at least one and perhaps dozens of names that then you have a direct referral to.

This is networking activity should not be limited to only when you're looking for a job (although it will certainly uncover career opportunities). In fact, I think this should be started in high school and continue throughout college and even when you are in a job you appreciate. Over time, you will gain a huge collection of people that know you, respect you, and like you, and when one of those unpublished opportunities comes up, you will be at the top of their mind. Career opportunities will end up finding you, instead of the other way around.

Gradschool and Careerspan

As you contemplate your career and whether or not to go to graduate school, it's important to keep in mind that you're not trying to decide a path that you will follow the rest of your life. That kind of decision is overwhelming and would be pointless. You're going to be a different person in a week, a month, and a year. The person you are five years from now you might not even recognize. All you can really figure out is what you want to do right now. If you don't like whatever you are doing, if it's not interesting and compelling, you should consider making a change. That doesn't mean your education or job should be all fun and festive. No, in fact the things that will bring you the most joy are difficult, engrossing, and consuming (read the book FLOW for more on this).

Your are not choosing who you want to are not a job or a role or a title. You are looking for something you want to do, a function that will be of value to others such that you can make money doing it. Ideally this function will involve skills that cannot be done by a robot, won't be negatively effected by a major technology shift, and can garner value whether conducted inside a corporation or as an independent solo-practitioner.


High school and college should be looked at as an opportunity to explore multiple subjects to see where curiosity will lead, and to develop the basics of being a productive human in our society. Focusing too early--regardless of whether that focus is STEM or humanities esoterica--could result in critical gaps in skills for a productive future.

Knowledge is now basically a commodity. We all have nearly the entirety of human knowledge in our pockets, accessible with a couple of clicks. It is the ability to synthesize that knowledge, judge it, and use it, and the ability to understand and empathize with people to successfully apply that knowledge is what matters for the future.

There is plenty of time to focus in life. And it's important to note that interests can change over time. The average person has 6 to 10 different jobs over a career, and a broad foundation of technical and interpersonal skills is a asset that will last a lifetime.