Today, we teach our best and brightest to avoid
risk. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
recently included a remarkable quotation by a
scientist named Nicholas Lemann. Lemann observed
that, since 1970,
...the undergraduate atmosphere in Ivy league
colleges has been one of intense anxiety about the
perils of pursuing careers outside the professions
of law, medicine, and [the MBA.]
He goes on to point out that students are so
screened by test scores and grades that, when they
enter those prestige programs, they face little
vocational risk. Finish those degrees and your
future on the upper floors of big business is
The problem is, the attractive power of that
promise shapes elementary and high school education
-- even as other careers have done in the past.
Today the prime directive of every upscale high
school in America is to place students in
big-league law, medicine, and MBA programs. Last
year I found that parents were putting pressure on
a fine school for learning-impaired students. They
wanted their children in those programs.
"But your students are uniquely talented for fields
that demand spatial visualization," I spluttered.
"We dyslexics make fine engineers and inventors. We
do fine in art, computers, theater. Why push your
students into the standard prestige programs?
They're the people who'll shape the material world
we live in." The principal looked at me sadly and
said, "I know, I know."
Of course parents want childrens' futures
guaranteed. They push them into law, business, and
medicine at the top schools. The best and brightest
are winnowed out and rewarded for avoiding risk.
And so, Lemann says, the top students end up
advising people in power -- working for people
who've lived at risk. Our high-IQ people lose
power, and the mischief propagates both up and
down. On the one hand, our schools are abdicating
the kind of course work that develops the hand and
eye -- art, music, shop, mechanical drawing.
Without a developed ability to visualize, and to
move in space, math and science suffer in turn.
And, in the halls of industry, risk-aversion
becomes a central theme. Quarterly balance sheets
are more important than long-term development.
Slogans tell us to "Do it right the first time,"
when it should be clear that the only thing we can
do right the first time is something we've already
done a hundred time before.
Real influence flows to people who leave the beaten
paths and whose hands touch the material world. In
every age, one field or another looks like a sure
thing. But that never lasts more than a generation
because success is the mother of failure. Today
we're oversupplied with doctors, lawyers, and MBAs
in a world crying for computer-smart people. By the
time every bright kid has signed up to study
computers, we'll need more biologists. And I'm sure
we shall, eventually, find ourselves facing a
shortage of lawyers.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds