Why More Americans Don’t Major in Math and Science

A dwindling proportion of students are majoring in STEM fields. They're likely making the wise choice.

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting feature entitled “Generation Jobless: Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay.”

Although the number of college graduates increased about 29% between 2001 and 2009, the number graduating with engineering degrees only increased 19%, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Dept. of Education. The number with computer and information-sciences degrees decreased 14%. Since students typically set their majors during their sophomore year, the first class that chose their major in the midst of the recession graduated this year.

Research has shown that graduating with these majors provides a good foundation not just for so-called STEM jobs, or those in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields, but a whole range of industries where earnings expectations are high. Business, finance and consulting firms, as well as most health-care professions, are keen to hire those who bring quantitative skills and can help them stay competitive.

So, more people are going to college and even fewer of them are studying the subjects most likely to lead to high paying jobs–or, in the current economy, jobs, period. Presumably, this is because American kids today are fat, stupid, lazy, and entitled, right?

Students who drop out of science majors and professors who study the phenomenon say that introductory courses are often difficult and abstract. Some students, like Ms. Zhou, say their high schools didn’t prepare them for the level of rigor in the introductory courses.

Overall, only 45% of 2011 U.S. high-school graduates who took the ACT test were prepared for college-level math and only 30% of ACT-tested high-school graduates were ready for college-level science, according to a 2011 report by ACT Inc.

“If you haven’t been given the proper foundation early on, you fall farther and farther behind as the material gets more difficult. It’s discouraging, demoralizing,” says Claus von Zastrow, the chief operating officer and director of research at Change the Equation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that seeks to improve science and math education. It has led professors to anticipate the high levels of attrition.

So, a lot of students who are trying to take STEM classes are finding themselves unprepared for the challenge. American University law professor Kenneth Anderson (JD, Harvard) isn’t surprised and argues that these students are probably making the prudent choice.

I’m basing this on my current experience as a law professor who talks a lot with students at a mid-tier law school and what led them there, as well as my experience as a parent of a student who will be doing humanities as her major at Rice, a school with world class STEM and world class humanities.

There are a lot of smart students out there who will nonetheless not be able to compete in world class institutions in STEM. Why? They might have, say, near 800s in verbal and writing, and mid 600s in math on the SAT. (This matches up, btw, to Gene Expression blog’s mapping of the GRE scores of various college majors for the highest testing of the humanities majors — the philosophy students, who have about exactly those scores. I’ll put up the charts in a later post, but very roughly the verbal and math scores flip for the highest scoring of the sciences — physics, and are somewhere in the middle for the highest scoring of the social sciences, economics.) At a school like Rice — and any university ranked above it — specialization has already taken place, sorting by subject area. A tiny handful of students can be true polymaths, but that’s hardly the norm. Instead, the STEM students are sought competitively on a world-wide basis, and it will be academic suicide and frankly impossible for a student who is not at the top of those competitive areas even to pass the classes.

In that case, if you are a smart but not brilliant student in STEM, you might tell yourself until you are blue in the face that you must study STEM to be employable and have real skills. But the reality is that you will flunk out or come close to it, or be lucky to get by with Cs. Moreover, at that level of performance, it is not clear that you are actually acquiring STEM skills, just at a C level compared to an A level. Pedagogically, it doesn’t work that way. The bottom end students wind up not really learning anything, because the class moves at a pace and in a way that they can’t keep up with, even to get a lesser grounding in it.

This comports pretty well with my personal experience. I was strong enough in math and the sciences in high school that I did what most of the bright kids starting college in the mid-1980s did and declared that I was going to be an engineering major. Now, the vagaries of starting my college career at West Point were such that I was juggling more balls than I was prepared to handle but I rather quickly found that I was struggling to keep up in the math and science courses and breezing through the social science and humanities courses. The latter subjects came naturally to me while, at a particular level of abstraction, I simply no longer understood the material in the former, which were therefore reduced to me memorizing formulas and applying steps by rote. I quite literally learned nothing in those classes; it was all, to use the cadet phrase, “spec and dump.” (And by “nothing,” I mean “nothing.” One hopes I got some vague analytical benefit from the exercise but I retained zero subject matter knowledge. I quite literally don’t even know what the hell calculus is about and took two semesters of it. )

In hindsight, that shouldn’t have been surprising. I was preternaturally fascinated with politics going back as far as junior high and was in the 99th percentile on my English and Social Science ACTs and only in the 80s somewhere in Math and Science. I retook the test hoping to improve my math scores and instead gained two points on Social Science–despite having been in the 99th percentile to begin with. (Oddly, my SAT scores were almost identical for Math and Verbal; I’m pretty sure that was a fluke rather than a major difference in the tests themselves.)

While I don’t know that, as a 19-year-old, my calculations were as complicated as Anderson’s, my basic sense was that I was better off doing something that I was interested in and had natural aptitude for rather than continue to struggle doing something where I was destined to be, at best, mediocre and miserable.

Why do the STEM departments grade so strictly, compared with other departments? There are reasons why the liberal arts departments tend to grade inflation; treat that separately. The STEM departments have their own incentives for holding grades down, especially in the introductory courses. Basically, the reputation of the department rests disproportionately on the very top performers. Less on the average, and not at all on what general ed classes are offered to the rest of the university. If that’s the case, then better to relentlessly winnow down in the first classes, and concentrate resources on the top performers. Reputation is measured mostly at the top margin.

From the standpoint of a student who says, I don’t want to be an engineer or research chemist or computer scientist — I want to get a strong grounding in those fields, in a genuinely technical way — but I want to be a manager or someone with a non-technical job that requires interaction with the technical fields — how do I do that? At the top range of universities, the STEM departments simply don’t have a place for you. The university might require that the departments offer general ed courses — and so you will be offered, “rocks for jocks.” It won’t be technical; it will be gee-whiz, without the math. What you are looking for is a technical track designed for a student who is Yale quality in history or philosophy, but who needs something more like State College for technical skills. That would be the ideal mix — but there is little incentive for the STEM departments to create such a thing.

This is an interesting and completely plausible explanation. My gut explanation was always much simpler: In math and science, you’re either right or wrong and there’s very little room for subjectivity. Sure, there’s partial credit for getting the concepts right and making calculation errors but the student either fundamentally grasps the concept or not. By contrast, the humanities and social sciences are “softer,” with the ability to score points for a half-assed understanding of the material and with the difference between an A, B, and C answers being a matter of nuance, detail, and construction.

Anderson also hits on a pet peeve about the selection process:

Why, going back to the WSJ article, do they gravitate to the easiest majors that provide the fewest skills? Because they understand that in many cases, in today’s world no liberal arts major — apart from economics — will be taken very seriously to gain entry level to management, corporate consulting, etc. You will eventually be looking at professional school — business school or law school. And those schools care only about the GPA/LSAT-GMAT. That’s because those two figure so heavily in the USNWR rankings. So the GPA matters fantastically much — and, perhaps surprisingly to outsiders, the difficulty of the major is not taken into account.

These professional schools have traditionally accepted any major, and do not differentiate. So, a friend here in DC asked me about two recent interns of his who had gone on to law school — he was astonished and troubled to find that the MIT grad with the B average in STEM had fared far less well than the NYU English major. As in: the NYU lit grad went to Harvard and the MIT grad was wait-listed at American. That might seem surprising, but in addition, USNWR takes a generally hands off attitude toward the ranking of the undergraduate institutions. Meaning (and if someone in admissions processes wants to correct me on this regarding how USNWR treats the undergraduate institutions in law or b-school rankings, I would be very interested to know about it): a law school taking a bunch of B+ students from Harvard undergrad will be worse off than taking A students from University of Arizona. The law or b-school admissions offices might want to have some number of Ivy graduates, but so far as I know, that does not count in USNWR rankings of the professional schools.

The top universities have many reasons for grade inflation in liberal arts, but this fact counts among them. Undergraduates who realize that they cannot compete with global specialists in STEM, particularly at the top universities, opt for liberal arts subjects. They and the universities realize that GPA is all that matters, and unsurprisingly, GPAs rise. How much? Well, just this week the University of Illinois College of Law was forced to restate downwards its false GPA and LSAT data for the last couple of years. Illinois is a darn fine school, with one of the great faculties in law — a leading top 25 school — but it is still not Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. Its average GPAs were restated downwards from 3.8 to … 3.7. I regard that as an astronomical GPA, and that’s average.

Overlooked in all this is the immensely damaging effect of grade inflation on risk-taking among our supposedly brightest elites. Grade inflation is really grade compression against a top line. And grade compression means that mostly you have nowhere to go but down. How do you avoid that? When falling below, in effect, an A- at worst average easily drives you out of the top ten law schools? Or out of the top 20? And when you know, and your parents know, that in addition to the 50k a year you’ve paid to study some liberal arts subject that only has a return on investment if you double down the bet on law school or b-school — at another 50k a year? And further, when you know that outside of the top 25 or so law schools at this very moment, the job opportunities are sufficiently iffy that you are not so much making an investment as placing a bet on employment … well, you are going to not just rationally, but desperately, seek every way of ensuring that your GPA is as close to 4.0 as humanly possible.

It is not, in other words, that you made irrational, foolish, or bad choices as a sophomore to study liberal arts, and the easiest majors among them, rather than STEM. Nor is law school then a way of merely making a more rational best of a bad and irrational situation. It is, rather, that you figured out that precisely because you had managed to get into a highly regarded university, you could not compete with the worldwide competition that the engineering school sees as its reputational guarantor — and in any case, your desire was not to be purely a technical STEM person, in research or pure engineering. Getting a C in courses in engineering at Rice or Stanford is not the equivalent of getting As at Cal Poly; getting Cs in these subjects probably means you didn’t learn anything substantial at a level you could understand and apply. So you switch to liberal arts, and immediately notice that your GPA goes up. Then you notice that top 25 law schools are basically demanding a near 4.0 GPA.

At that point (if not before, way back in high school), serious risk aversion kicks in. You do not take any class, if possible, where you aren’t pretty assured of getting an A or at worst an A-. That will lead you to fields in which the major offers no job prospects, by the way, and so the tradeable currency of the department (all the ethnic and gender studies programs, anthropology, globalization studies, and many more) turns out to be As as a mechanism for continuing to get majors to come to the department. If anyone does not believe that university administrations monitor closely the numbers of majors, think again; many of these majors will come under serious pressure as students realize there is nothing on the other side. They will offer students As. And so long as the professional schools and USNWR treat all grades as fungible, there will be an market in arbitrageable As as surely as Greece depended on it being treated as well as Germany.

Now, again, I’m not sure if schools and departments are as craven about the USNWR rankings as Anderson suggests. I was frankly never at institutions high enough on the prestige ladder where it would have been a significant factor. But the student calculus here strikes me as exactly right. I often half-joked that getting my degree was interfering with getting an education. Stretching outside one’s comfort zone by taking courses that will be inordinately difficult is a high risk, no reward proposition in all but the existential sense. Not only does the student risk getting a non-A, which can be a significant barrier to admissions and merit-based scholarships, but they risk the extra effort going into that class sucking energy away from their other classes and making getting A’s in them more difficult. And, since a class is a class is a class on the transcript–to the extent that anyone ever looks beyond the GPA–it’s just not worth it. Indeed, that’s Anderson’s advice to his own daughter:

[I]s there a serious possibility that you plan to go on to law school or b-school? If so, then the strategy is completely different — go with classes and majors that maximize GPA, period. No other priority in any class that has a grade. If that means Sustainable Development in Latin America, go for it; if it means anthropology as human rights activism, go for it; if it means Global Justice, go for it. The professional schools won’t care; all that matters is the GPA.

If this seems contrary to the very notions of higher education, it’s because it’s contrary to the very notions of higher education. I’d strongly prefer a system that rewards students for expanding their horizons and risking failure, but we don’t have such a system. Every game has its rules and the winners conduct themselves with them in mind.

A handful of schools, MIT most notable among them, don’t award letter grades in introductory courses, simply going Pass/Fail. I like the idea, although I have no empirical knowledge of whether it works to encourage experimentation or laziness.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Best of OTB, Economics and Business, Education, Science & Technology, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steve Verdon says:

    I quite literally don’t even know what the hell calculus is about and took two semesters of it.

    It is the study of change:

    df/dx is a measure of how the function f(x) changes as x changes. The integral portion of calculus works backwards. Given a rate of change what is the underlying function. It relies on limits and continuity–i.e. how “smooth” is a function.

    Not that you really care. 🙂

  2. Janis Gore says:

    That is my track, almost to a “T”. Just not that well-grounded or capable in math even if I scored in the top 10% per SAT, but top-notch in verbal. Not that you can tell that now.

    But I did want to expand my horizons. The structure and expense of schooling limited that.

    Now I am happy with a library card, and quit having dreams about showing up in pajamas for tests in classes I’d never attended.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    There are only two majors, really:

    1) Majors where you have to produce actual, specific, answers.
    2) Majors where you mostly just make sh-t up.

    As an author if I had gone to college I would absolutely have pursued a degree in making sh-t up. Fortunately I was able to make sh-t up all on my own without a student loan. But there are times when I wonder . . . would I be making up completely different sh-t if I were truly well-educated in the craft of sh-t making up?

    Well, no point worrying about it. What can I say? I took the road less traveled by, and that made all the difference. <– See, I just just made that sh-t up.

  4. alanstorm says:

    “My gut explanation was always much simpler: In math and science, you’re either right or wrong and there’s very little room for subjectivity.”

    That’s the nub of the answer to your post title right there. All the rest is exposition and refinement.

  5. Jib says:

    I have to disagree about getting C’s in STEM classed mean you dont get the material. I got C’s a lot while getting my CompSci degree and I have had a long and profitable career in programming. Some of the classes I understood the best were ones I got C’s in. Some of the ones I got A’s in disappeared in my mind without a trace. Many times the C was actually an F at the start and an A at the end. I had several course that I needed an A on the final to get a C in the course. That journey was always the most profitable to me.

    My dad is a ME, my wife graduated an IE with honors, my brother in laws are both EE’s. When ever you get engineers together for beers, they always talk about the hard classes, the C’s. All practicing engineers made C’s. The ones who did not (and I have 1 brother in law who did not) went on to grad schools and research (my bil got a PhD in Physics).

    The thing is, you dont need grad degrees if you have a engineering degree. There is a long and profitable career path with just a bachelor. The one grad degree that many practicing engineers get as they get older is MBA and I have never known an engineer to fail to get into MBA school because they made C’s as an undergraduate. Never.

    As far as law school, well, being a lawyer is what happens to smart people who can not do math . You only do it because you have to.

    As I tell my 7 year old when he asks why he has to do extra math homework that none of the other kids do: ‘There are 2 kinds of people in the world, people who can do math, and peasants’.

  6. In other words, STEM doesn’t give a damn about your self esteem.

    In my experience, freshman engineering was meant to weed out a significant portion of the students to prevent them from failing later while they still had time to switch to an easier discipline. Just curious, but does anyone know of any instance of someone starting in, say, Psychology or English Lit and moving to engineering after their freshman year?

  7. Eric says:

    This is a really insightful and damn good outlook on higher education and getting a job after college. I am still amazed at what I learn at college (I mean the education system and the politics of universities) each day as I currently go to a state university and I do interact with lots of teachers and advisors. Is the current system bad for students? Probably, but I believe the main conflict that most students have when selecting their majors is that they don’t have a clue what they want to do with the rest of their lives and they think whatever they choose will be what they do from now on to their death.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    Eh, I think the data shows a significant drop in the % of STEM grads now versus, say, the 80s.

    I don’t think a lower % of the population, now, is incapable of learning the material. For whatever reason(s), fewer are trying to.

    My skills are reading, analyzing and writing. And I just plain love History, my major (original choice: Econ, which isn’t exactly a proper STEM major anyway). Thankfully, I found a job that appreciates my talents. Having said that, it’s pretty clear that getting more kids to pursue STEM would be wise.

    Michael: short, to the point and funny as usual. I’ll see you “make shit up major” and raise you some classic Mel Brooks:

    Dole Office Clerk: Occupation?
    Comicus: Stand-up philosopher.
    Dole Office Clerk: What?
    Comicus: Stand-up philosopher. I coalesce the vapors of human experience into a viable and meaningful comprehension.
    Dole Office Clerk: Oh, a *bullshit* artist!
    Comicus: *Grumble*…
    Dole Office Clerk: Did you bullshit last week?
    Comicus: No.
    Dole Office Clerk: Did you *try* to bullshit last week?
    Comicus: Yes!

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Rob in CT:

    I don’t think a lower % of the population, now, is incapable of learning the material. For whatever reason(s), fewer are trying to.

    Two things are happening. First, more people are going to college, bringing down the % in STEM. Second, international students are flooding our STEM programs, even at podunk institutions.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @charles austin: I don’t think self esteem factors into it. First, Anderson argues that there is deliberate weeding out going on to manipulate the college rankings. I’d think STEM programs more likely to engage in that. Second, it’s simply easier to get partial credit on a complicated essay question than on a complicated equation solution.

  11. “What you are looking for is a technical track designed for a student who is Yale quality in history or philosophy, but who needs something more like State College for technical skills. That would be the ideal mix — but there is little incentive for the STEM departments to create such a thing….

    The other option is to do basically what I did — Do a humanities degree that was math/econ heavy (BS in policy analysis) at a world class engineering school (CMU) and then double dip with even more math/econ/stats for my graduate work in policy analysis.

    Can I program? Hell no. Can I understand and visualize the implications of a variety of curves? Yep.. Can I do moderately complex calculus and a ton of logic flows? Yeah, on a daily basis for work. And I can do that while also being able to effectively communicate with the written word.

  12. Rob in CT says:


    I would think a high % of the population going to college would still result in *some* growth in (raw # of) STEM majors, but the last chart I saw on this had the STEM majors flat since the 80s, with liberal artsy majors *way* up.

    By the way, this: at a particular level of abstraction, I simply no longer understood the material in the former, which were therefore reduced to me memorizing formulas and applying steps by rote. I quite literally learned nothing in those classes

    Perfectly describes my relationship with math in my last two years of highschool. I could still pull a B out of my hat, but I had very little idea what was going on. I don’t really know if it was about me sucking at math or the way they decided to teach those classes (but I suspect that yeah, it’s me).

    When I got to college, I was invited to join two special programs: one designed for liberal arts geeks (classics, basically) and the other designed for the math geeks. I chose the liberal arts program. I think I was right to do so. My wife is a math major. She was able to handle differential equations (and, it should be noted, still do very well in an Irish history class with me, ’cause she’s just generally kind of awesome). I’d have been screwed.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    @James Joyner: I would add the percentage of women in college has increased significantly since the 80s.

  14. Janis Gore says:

    Not to forget, for top-notch math people, the top score on an SAT tests the lower limits of their abilities.

  15. Rob in CT says:

    @Janis Gore:

    Math on the SAT is (or was, when I took it in the early 90s) mostly not advanced stuff anyway. Plus there’s the whole thing about knowing how to take a standardized test.

    It still tickles me that my math score was higher than my verbal score. Hah.

  16. anjin-san says:

    Totally Obama’s fault. If we don’t impeach him by COB Friday, the Republic is lost.

  17. @anjin-san: Awesome contribution to the conversation.

  18. Janis Gore says:

    @Rob in CT: It wasn’t.

  19. Janis Gore says:

    I took it in 1973.

  20. rodney dill says:

    @charles austin: Nailed that one. SSDD.

  21. JKB says:

    @charles austin: In other words, STEM doesn’t give a damn about your self esteem.

    Of course they do. It’s just the concern the Marine Corps has for your self esteem. If you survive, you are cock of the walk. If you DOR, then you’ll limp for a good long while.

  22. grumpy realist says:

    Another reason why Americans might not be going into STEM majors is because the pay with a bachelor’s doesn’t seem consistent with the hard work you do. Plus too many corporations are going to demand Master’s and higher degrees for anything that pays a decent salary.

    The reason MIT has pass/fail the first year is too many frosh were freaking out and committing suicide at being “B” students. It takes about a year before it sinks in that being a “B” student at MIT really isn’t that bad.

    (Now if we Tech dudes can just get over our feelings that unless we’ve formed a multi-billion $ corporation our first year after graduation we aren’t successful….)

  23. grumpy realist says:

    @JKB: That was actually one of the hardest things to learn about doing real research in physics. 90% of the time you’re going to be running down blind alleys. As my boyfriend said: “get used to the statistics or get out of physics.” The best you can do is get better at realizing earlier when you’re on the wrong track and bailing out before you’ve wasted more time.

  24. rodney dill says:

    @grumpy realist: Along the line of corporate direction, Math has become somewhat a commodity item, just as computer programming. Countries like India and China have been able to turn out mathematicians and programmers without much high tech investment. The outsourcing of these skillsets makes it less lucrative here, and less worth the effort.

  25. anjin-san says:

    @ Charles

    I realize it’s not as compelling as saying “That sounds like an argument for smaller government” five or six thousand times a year.

    Guess I will have to try harder…

  26. What you are looking for is a technical track designed for a student who is Yale quality in history or philosophy, but who needs something more like State College for technical skills.

    Even this seems part of the problem. Given that most of the better engineering schools ARE state colleges, the dismissiveness of a state college education underscores how universities have become primarily focused on LA degrees with STEM being just an afterthought in the minds of the elites.

  27. @anjin-san: Perhaps, but it has the advantage of being true.

  28. george says:

    What Rodney said about India and China – math and theoretical physics in particular can be learned with just paper and pencil, which means a certain percentage of the population of any country will be both good at it and able to study it adequately. And given the number of Chinese and Indians, and how seriously they take education … well, you get the idea.

    Of course, the same is quickly becoming true for the social sciences, which is one of the reasons for OWS (grad work in the social sciences and humanities not leading to jobs anymore because those jobs have migrated); white collar jobs of all sorts are heading overseas, because people there have lower costs of living, and so can work for much cheaper.

    All departments mark on a curve (or do the equivalent in setting up tests to give a preferred result – you can make a simple addition test such that only 50% of the population will pass just by piling on the questions); the sciences and engineering still aim for a class average between C+ and B-, many (though not all) of the social sciences aim at a class average of an A. If you’re not going to get a job anyway (ie if you aren’t good enough at STEM that you will get a job despite overseas competition, and most really bright students in fact still do get jobs), might as well go for the one that gives you top marks for being average in your field. If nothing else, it sounds better to say you’re an “A student”.

  29. sam says:

    Hard vs. easy. Do any of you think that STEM majors are smarter, intrinsically, than humanities majors?

  30. Scott says:

    I think part of the problem is that even though there is a lot of hand wringing about STEM and STEM type jobs, there is very little long term incentive. Initial pay may be better but it tend to flatten out pretty quick. Job security is not there. There is also a large requirement for continuous learning for 30-40 years.

  31. @sam: Depends on how you choose to measure intelligence, or we can devolve rather quickly to right-brained versus left-brained people.

    Hmm…, to put it another way, do we need 100,000 more electrical and mechanical engineers or 100,000 more social workers and high school psychologists? The answers probably aren’t as obvious as those who would choose to caricature me might think.

  32. ponce says:

    I blame the dumbass wild goose chase that physics has been on for the last 50 years for the huge decline in the appeal of technical careers.

    I also partly blame physicists for America’s high unemployment rate.

    Let’s hope other absurdities like String Theory die at the same time the search for the Higgs boson does early next year.

    Question: Can you name a living American scientist?

  33. george says:

    Hard vs. easy. Do any of you think that STEM majors are smarter, intrinsically, than humanities majors?

    No, but then I don’t think either group is intrinsically smarter than trades people either. Different skill sets, different specializations.

  34. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    Pretty much my educational choice succession:

    1. I’m pretty good at programming on high-school level and adequate on maths. Software engineering is low on programming and high on higher maths.

    2. I probably won’t be able to match the maniacs who eat, think and dream maths. Those are the guys I would have to compete for jobs with later.

    3. I would love to do history but it won’t pay the bills.

    4. Recap: So I’m good at logical thinking and breaking down complex procedures into component parts that can be dealt with easily and consistently. I’m also good with languages and arguing interpretations.

    Bingo! Let’s go to law school.

    Another life wasted :D.

  35. Neil Hudelson says:

    @michael reynolds:

    After a brief stint in engineering (I left for a good many of the reasons outlined in this post), I decided to pursue my dream of being a professional shit-making-upper–an author. Along the way I got involved with some community service initiatives, which led to more civic engagement minded projects, followed by advocacy, and finally politics.

    Now I make shit up on a daily basis in a far different capacity.

    (I wanted to be an author, by the way, due to my favorite scifi authors as a kid–particularly Aasimov and Heinlein. I discovered the joy of sci-fi due to a very popular young adult series called the Animorphs.)

  36. michael reynolds says:

    @Neil Hudelson:
    Very cool, man. It’s always nice to meet an AniFan in real life and learn that they didn’t all turn into murderers and psychos. Not all.

  37. Janis Gore says:

    Right, Michael. Some of them are gay. A commenter at Joe.My. God. listed Animorphs as his favorite children’s lit on a “favorite children’s writer” post.

  38. sam says:

    Math. I’ve always envied mathematicians. I had a hard time with algebra. Not the solving equations part, that was pretty easy. It was the word problem thing that got me. I had the devil’s own time quantifying things. I just couldn’t get my head around some of those problems. Now here’s the, to me, interesting part: I had zero difficulty with geometry and trigonometry. Zero. And I was pretty good at mathematical logic when I was an undergraduate and graduate student, and that stuff can get pretty abstract. I find it perplexing that I had little trouble dealing with some kinds of high-level abstract symbolic whatever, and much trouble with other kinds. Anybody else had this experience? Anyone think I could have done better in algebra had my teachers spent more time teaching us how to quantify? (Can that be taught?)

  39. sam, sounds perhaps like you are good at mathematics but not as good at applied math, which is the engineering thing.

    FWIW, I found myself unusually proficient at mathematical logic and real analysis which many “math” and almost all “engineering” people found hard to do.

  40. sam says:

    I’d have gone on to calculus (something now I dearly,dearly, wish I’d done), but I was put off by the algebra. Let me be honest, though. I was never, ever going to be a mathematician, nor was I going to write my philosophy thesis on Godel or recursive function theory, but I think I could have gone farther in math than I did.

  41. Drew says:

    I almost belly laughed at part of James’ essay, it hit so close to home. On every single standardized test I’ve ever taken, from grade school to post grad entrance exams, my math scores are in the 92-93rd percentile. The so called verbal? Always 99th. Always.

    So naturally, being the idiot I am, I went for my strength (snicker) into engineering.

    You gotta love it. I first tried the ultimate math based engineering discipline: electrical. That lasted one semester.

    Off to chemistry. Is chemistry still a math based engineering discipline? Yep. But chemistry isn’t just a math based description of physics and engineering, like electrical engineering. So mathematically conceptual. For me, at least, chemistry I understood in my bones. It was intuitive. Drive these chemical reactions, scrape off the residuals, refine the remaining………. (Ask Alex Knapp; I bet he says the same) Understand chemistry, and you undertand how 90% of the (physical) world works.

    But I digress. I certainly wish – because I’m horifically biased – that more people don’t get trained in the quantitative sciences. It changed my life to think like an engineer/scientist and not a brain full of mush “soft curriculum” person. But this is an old topic. They don’t pay for this. Its just a fact, but a topic for another day.

  42. Wayne says:

    As some have pointed out, there are many reasons for a decrease in math and science fields. I agreed the lower GPA one tends to get for going in one of those fields is part of it. Someone with a GPA of 2.8 in mathematics will have higher GPA in the general classes than someone with a 3.5 with a major in another field. However when applying for a job outside of one’s major field, that fact often isn’t taken into account.

    I always considered calculus as a base that one needs to understand the higher maths. And yes many of the concepts are hard to get a handle on. Also some people are simply not wired to be able understand it. Some mathematicians are not wired for other subjects. Also simply remembering then discarding what you learn will not cut it math type fields.

    I also found out that expanding your sample size of a set doesn’t mean that set will be consistent with original sample. I suspect those going to college a few decades ago were compose of a higher portion of those capable of understanding those subjects. Taking a larger sample will have a decrease in return.

    We found the same thing in the military. Taking elites out of a small well trained force can get you highly capable elite unit. Trying to double the number of elite units by simply double the base you take it from often doesn’t work. By doubling the base you often get proportional less overall elite types to choose from. Total numbers usually go up but not by proportion. Also the qualities of assets you use to train that base usually decline by proportion as well.

  43. James Joyner says:

    @Drew: @Wayne: Likely a triple whammy in my case. First, I was elite in math and science at a small pond high school. Second, I’m really good at basic math, through algebra and geometry, but not gifted at the more conceptual mathematics. Third, my instructors at West Point were mostly bright captains with a master’s degree in their fields who didn’t have all that much experience teaching. So, I didn’t have the skills to be great and didn’t have instructors who could figure out how to repackage the material in a way that would make sense to me.

    At the end of the day, it didn’t matter. If I had the most gifted instructors on the planet, i was only going to go so far. But I’d likely have succeeded at undergraduate level math and science courses.

  44. Drew says:

    I just re-read my comment. What a boner. “I sincerely hope more people DO go into the physical sciences.”

    Its the arrogance of engineering. They train you how to figure anything out. Anything. From scratch. From pure scratch. That’s what they do.

    I’m now waiting for Michael Reynolds to rise up like Godzilla……………

  45. Janis Gore says:

    Chemistry. I’m not bad at that. I did pretty well at organic. Biology isn’t bad either, unless you have my aversion to surgery.

  46. There’s another aspect to STEM, and that is that to a certain extent it is hard, and everyone knows that going in. Which, coincidentally, is why so many people choose not to try it.

    “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” — The Man in Black (Westley) in The Princess Bride by William Goldman

  47. steve says:

    I was chemistry/biology dual major undergrad. Then I went into med school where you no longer use math or need to know that much science. However, I have been trying to compare my undergrad courses with what my son is doing now. His courses seem much more difficult. His calculus course is much more difficult than anything I saw. The kids seem to spend a lot more time studying than I ever did.


  48. Janis Gore says:

    What role does Henkin mapping play in the teaching of upward mathematics after ’68? They thought it was elemental in my day.

  49. JKB says:

    Every game has its rules and the winners conduct themselves with them in mind.

    So maybe that is the problem. Everyone is trying to game the system and the system changed the rules. For ultimately, regardless of your degree, your major or your school, the employers want someone who will add value to their bottom line. With so many moving to the dumbed down majors to get a good GPA to get into grad or law school, have they damaged their ability to offer value to an enterprise? That may be the real issue with the #OWS, they followed the rules, prepared for a job in corporate America, oddly most want to go non-profit, only they find that corporate America had caught on to the gaming of the system and don’t see them bringing much value at current employee costs. The question is, can they take these -studies degrees, MFAs, etc, and find a way to create productive employment without corporate employment?

    As for dumping the hard work of STEM majors, well that is unfortunate as the first lessons are how to solve problems, how to order your thoughts and visualize the situation. I’m speaking here of engineering, physics, math and somewhat chemistry. Some other STEM majors, such biology, are more information based. This problem solving is not unlike the writing and “critical thinking” that is imparted in the softer side of academia. The difference is that in STEM, you can’t not develop problem solving skills and get by as apparently plenty of liberal arts types do without developing critical thinking skills. Either you can frame a problem or you fail by the end of the first semester of your sophomore year.

    I remember in my freshman into engineering courses, which covered the physics but with help as you picked up the simultaneous Calculus course, one girl, an obvious overachiever, one morning complained that the tests weren’t like the homework. The professor replied sharply, “Because I want you to think.” Watershed moment for me. And, of course, sophomore year started the actual statics and dynamics courses where you were to be up on the math. Also, the clean out course, which was a physic course, mostly Electricity and Magnetism. But really it was simple, the exam questions were handed out a week early. Fifty questions from which 20 or 25 would be on the exam in a slightly modified form. Trick, you couldn’t solve them in the exam time, you had to work the 50 beforehand and know the solutions. Again, problem solving with new knowledge.

    I didn’t pursue a purely scientific career although when I entered my field you had to have a certain number of hours of physics and calculus. Now less so, as they rely on the magic boxes, i.e., electronic devices and computer programs. But while I seldom had to bring up integral calculus, I used the problem solving and familiarity with equations routinely.

  50. Janis Gore says:

    I repeat my question.

  51. Janis Gore says:

    @charles austin:Sure you think so Charles, until some inept biology student anesthetizes you to extract your liver for a gel phoresis experiment in mitochondria.

    Sorry, guy.

  52. Moderate Mom says:

    I was a finance major in college. While very good in liberal arts courses such as English, Literature, Sociology and History, I dreaded the requirements in Science and Math. I made A’s through two semesters of biology, but it was nothing but sheer memorization and regurgitation on my part and managed to stumble through two semesters of calculus with high Cs. Of all things, hating math as much as I did, I absolutely loved my accounting courses and took more than required as electives.

    The strange thing was that, all along, my objective was to get into law school. Which I did, which I hated, which I quit after my first year. I fell back on my degree and went to work for a bank and eventually went into business with my husband. On very bad days at the office, I wish I had changed my major to Accounting and become a CPA.

  53. Janis Gore says:

    How are CPAs doing now? My brother is an old one.

  54. stuhlmann says:

    “My gut explanation was always much simpler: In math and science, you’re either right or wrong and there’s very little room for subjectivity. ”

    While this is true in math and “pure” sciences, like physics, it is often not true with engineering. In engineering, you have to design things that meet real-world requirements while remaining within the laws of physics and chemistry. Requirements almost always conflict with each other. Faster processors and more memory in laptops or smartphones means that they operate more quickly, but also means that they generate more heat, consume more power, and cost more to build. So optimizing for one desired characteristic, (e.g.) performance, means that the device must be larger and heavier, or must be recharged more often. Much of design and engineering is finding the best compromise – the mixture of pros and cons that will be most acceptable to your customers. There isn’t a right answer, only a best answer, and best is in the often subjective eyes of your customers.

  55. sam says:


    The difference is that in STEM, you can’t not develop problem solving skills and get by as apparently plenty of liberal arts types do without developing critical thinking skills.

    And you know that studying the liberal arts does not develop critical thinking skills how?

  56. JKB says:
  57. Moderate Mom says:

    @Janis Gore:

    Well, I don’t know how all CPAs are faring in this economy, but the one we use for all of our business and personal tax stuff is doing quite well, if his bills to us are any indication. : )

    I would assume that as long as the tax code remains as confusing as it is now, CPAs will continue to be in demand.

  58. sam says:


    Did you read what you cited? Evidently not:

    Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills…

    Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.

  59. JKB says:


    I did not say that liberal arts didn’t develop those skills, I said that you could make it through without developing them. You cannot survive engineering school or the hard sciences without learning problem solving period.

    As for writing, that is being overrun by the wide opportunities for those willing to develop the skills outside the classroom

    Why Trying to Learn Clear Writing in College is Like Trying to Learn Sobriety in a Bar

    The Internet has created a generation of great writers – Penelope Trunk

    The Age of the Essay – Paul Graham

  60. john personna says:

    Interesting thread. As it happens, I had calculus in high school. Actually not only that, but a work-flow self-paced, calculus in high school. That probably helped in all kinds of ways.

    Did anyone discuss attention span?

    STEM is hard, and you can’t pick it up in 2 or 3 minute slices between multi-tasking.

  61. Barb Hartwell says:

    Even the reasons many people gave for not studying math and science make my head hurt.

  62. JKB says:

    Just saw this regarding British maths education:

    Maths teaching is so bad that teenagers leave school dangerously ignorant

    What pupils and school leavers cannot do is work out what sums to do to solve a problem. They don’t understand how to ask the question.’

    You cannot survive in STEM if you can’t frame the question in a form that can be solved.

  63. Joe R. says:


    Hard vs. easy. Do any of you think that STEM majors are smarter, intrinsically, than humanities majors?

    The only real way to measure that would be to run a lot of people with STEM degrees through social science programs, and vice versa. All this talk of “different skill sets” is just hiding the fact that it’s a division of labor problem. Whichever group is better at their 2nd skill set, on average, is smarter. No way to prove it AFAIK, but I know which bunch I’d bet my money on.

  64. Andrew says:

    By having an opportunity to study mathematics in the UK and the US, particularly Cambridge and Princeton, I would argue that Europe generally performs better in math and science because they heavily integrate and view the “easy” humanities as an essential element to a strong math and science education. It is pretty much required for any math or physics major to be a part-time philosopher. Science and mathematics has always had a strong connection with philosophy, particularly novel theory. When I was at Princeton I always found it rather amusing that students complained about a strong general education requirement at universities and students continue to push to phase it out.

  65. JKB says:


    Perhaps true but the humanities offered as general education is leftist indoctrination. My niece had to take a course amusingly called, “Liberal Arts”. I believe it actually was based on rap music or something. She had a conflict with “instructor” over her opinions. I advised that she could stand her ground, fail the class or write whatever BS the “instructor” wanted to read, get the grade and never look back at the liberal arts again. She passed the class. You want Liberal Arts for the STEM types, then teach the great books and not the leftist indoctrination that is now Liberal Arts. Teach philosophy and not post-feminist views of Wuthering Heights.

  66. Function f of brilliant americans who major in computer science (c)

    f(c) = E (I * yr) * $.01 / E Amr * Mba^Grd

    or… the number of Americans who study computer science is related to the millions of Fake degreed Indian engineers they import for pennies on the dollar vs. the total american engineers who should be in jobs. Mulitply by the vast greed of MBAs as greed approaches infinity

    So if there are 500,000 fraud engineers imported from india each year for a total of over 3 million, and a total of 4 million engineers jobs in america

    then there is a 75% chance you will THROW YOUR LIFE AWAY if you study computer science because our corrupt government gives not a rats ass about you.

  67. Barry says:

    @Janis Gore: “Not to forget, for top-notch math people, the top score on an SAT tests the lower limits of their abilities. ”

    No. In fact, the Math GRE test isn’t going to do that. I got (IIRC) a little over the 50th percentile, and that’s with a BS from a third-tier school[1] and one year of statistics (I missed a question which was prob-based, to my shame).

    [1] To give you an idea of what those tiers meant in math, the second-tier school’s math undergraduate program required at least two classes which were graduate-level in the third-tier school’s program. So imagine what a first-tier program would be like. From sketchy knowledge, you’d better be doing 500- and 600-level work by the time that you get a BS.

  68. Barry says:

    @JKB: “You want Liberal Arts for the STEM types, then teach the great books and not the leftist indoctrination that is now Liberal Arts. Teach philosophy and not post-feminist views of Wuthering Heights. ”

    I’d like to see actual proof of a university liberal arts program where a right-winger could not get all A’s, with zero disguise of their opinions. Please note that this is assuming that they have good grounds for their opinions; for example anybody bringing Barton into a history course will get a well-deserved F.

  69. Barry says:

    @giavellireport: Back during the late 90’s, I remember hearing of stories of desperate companies striving to retain people, and hiring those who were trainable, if not ‘plug and play’. I remember a story about one (large) firm systematically contacting people who’d resigned over the past several years.

    When and only when I see those stories again, will I believe in a shortage of trained workers.

  70. Janis Gore says:

    @Barry: I was speaking in reference to high school SATs in 1972-73. The math questions weren’t that hard. If even I could score in the top 10%, without a course in trig or calculus, the math folks were walking through,