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Our 19th-Century Curriculum

It’s time for more databases, fewer quadratic ­equations.

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By ANDY KESSLER
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Going off to college or, like me, sending your child? Suckers! Why? Because after paying average private college tuition and room and board of $28,500 a year (Harvard is now $54,500), over half of college graduates with bachelor degrees under the age of 25 don’t have jobs or are underemployed. Half! And this despite the 3.8 million job openings in the economy as of June. A whopping 1.5 million recent graduates just aren’t qualified for outstanding jobs—not a ringing endorsement of higher education.

MIT Algebra Exam

What’s the problem? Most blame outsourcing or technology or the financial crisis. Forget it. Look no further than the huge disconnect between what colleges are turning out and what employers want in new hires. And the gap is widening. Sorry, but good old reading, writing, and ’rithmetic ain’t cutting it anymore.

Check out the adjoining test. It looks just like the math section of the SAT or ACT tests you sweated over for college admissions, right? Except this one is from the entrance exam for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—from 1869. What was so important back then? Simple, the Brooklyn Bridge started construction in January 1870 and every other city in America was itching to build a steel-wire suspension bridge. Designers and builders were the hot jobs and required understanding parabolas
and quadratic equations.

But can anyone explain why, 140+ years later, high schools and universities are teaching this same curriculum? We are building a bridge to the 19th century! Math and science are now being used as a filter, a set of problems used to separate the smart kids from the mediocre ones. James Gentile, president of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, put it plainly: “Introductory science classes .  .  . are frequently used as a way of weeding out students instead of cultivating them.” We’re basically teaching puzzles. How dumb is that?

Every politician pays lip service to the need for more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students. President Obama noted in the last State of the Union address, “I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills. Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that—openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. That’s inexcusable. And we know how to fix it.” Lots of talk, not much action. Most students already know that hot air rises.

Fixing it means looking into the future, not the past. In addition to history and literature and basic communications skills needed for
critical thinking, we ought to be teaching a curriculum that has some vague connection with the reality of what employers want today and over the next several decades. It can be hard, in order to separate the high achievers from the rest, but let’s make it useful.

Comp sci: Outside of teaching, I can’t think of too many math jobs. But just about every 21st-century job will revolve around software and databases and extracting information from large sets of data. Computer science is the new “plastics.” Whatever the job—pharmaceuticals, financial instruments, gas exploration, retailing,
advertising, automobile design—it’s increasingly software-centric. Yet comp sci is barely taught in high school and only encouraged for engineers and other geeky college majors. Math can be condensed into many fewer classes and augmented with new courses on programming and databases and using networks.

Language: Man-centuries of class time are wasted learning romantic languages. We don’t need more translators, and a career at the United Nations is no longer glamorous. In the ’60s and ’70s, students used to be encouraged to take German in order to read scientific journals. In the ’80s, learning to speak Japanese was considered critical. Lately, it’s Mandarin. All a waste. My son tried to get out of his college language requirement by correctly claiming the Internet is in English and Google Translate handles the rest. He was rejected. If you want to require a useful language, make it Java or Perl or Python or any object-oriented language rather than Spanish. And as with foreign languages, start young, even 7th grade. You’ll be surprised at how many are good at it.

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