Should we teach our kids math?

Via email a reader asks

"Hi Marc,

This blog posting struck a particular chord with me as I am at a cross-roads in my career; i.e., in my experience this US economy does not seem to value (especially in the form of compensation) engineering education and experience as much as I believe it should. E.g., it seems many other professions that do not require nearly the longer term and more rigorous education investment and intellectual fortitude such as "business" degrees and sales are rewarded and respected far more greatly and these economics do not seem to make sense. As you mentioned, given that engineering is HARD to learn, what behavior are we encouraging? Should we encourage our children to get an engineering degree or a business degree? And if technology innovation is important to our progress as a country and civilization, are we in danger of losing our competitive edge?

Given your international perspective, I'm curious of your thoughts and whether you see this disparity in other countries or is it specific to the US?

Thanks again!"

When I was 18, I had to choose between pursuing studies in Business or Science. My Dad was a business school major and wanted me to go into engineering. His rational was that "I would always have time to learn the business side of things, and that increasingly one needed to be fluent in the jargon of science and tech". I chose Math and Physics, got a long training in the hard sciences, never regretted it.

The social context is dependent on the country you find yourself in: In India, France, Spain, Germany and many others, Doctorates in hard sciences are very respected. To be sure a doctorate carries weight in the US, but I agree that the compensation does not usually follow.

Furthermore these are the reasons why I enjoyed and still enjoy being fluent in science.

1/ I get physical pleasure out of understanding things. My frontal lobe must be wired to my reward system. Understanding something releases dopamine in my system. I can get a deep sense of pleasure once I reach that "haha! moment". A lot of you in the field have this. Pleasure is primarely intellectual and chemically real. This you can pick up in a second in a person: is he enjoying the hard science, is he/she competitive about it. This is not specific to sciences, I have known people in sales and business development that had this trait.

2/ I benefited tremendously from the training in hard sciences. The math background makes you a stem cell of knowledge. Once you learn the jargon of differential calculus, you are not really impressed easily. A lot of the difficulty is in learning a new vocabulary. Every field develops its own jargon, but there is no complexity to it. Once you have that analytical approach, you can make a lot of progress in any field mildly technical. Nothing fazes you.

3/ Understanding the business side. That one is more ethereal. Surely doing business is about maximizing the money function, numbers and I encourage many of you to develop an understanding of all things accounting and finance. Get a handle on accounting first, it is easy, almost neat. It deals with numbers and it is really at the heart of business. Then finance and economics. Picking the business side of things up, through analytical rigor is a plus.

Overall I truly encourage you to encourage your little ones to not be afraid of scientific teachings. They provide a solid basis, a certain ease, and an intellectual rigor and that will serve them all their lives.

See you in 10 years :)


Bill Burke said…
Another "useless" degree is a CS one. Software is another thing you can easily learn later on, IMO, as the talent is 99% genetics and knowledge self-taught. I always regret I didn't do hard science like you did.
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