Idealism, Wealth Creation, and Engineering

by Nathan on March 22, 2012

The idealism of today’s college students is rather remarkable. A cursory look at the brochures of top university programs reveals a strong desire to not only transform America but also tackle persisting global problems like poverty and world hunger. It is encouraging for our country that so many of our nation’s young people are moved and motivated on such a scale, perhaps not seen since when President Kennedy remarked that we should selflessly ask what we can do for our country.

There is, however, a difference between the idealism spurred on by the president’s Cold War rhetoric and the idealism of today. Though the ideal ends are the still same – the struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war, as he said – the means are different. The idealism of yesterday ushered in a generation of engineers who put a man on the moon and exponentially advanced science and technology for the benefit of all mankind. But it is not so today.

Indeed, less and less American college students are choosing to go into engineering fields. While the number of college diplomas is on the rise, the proportion of those students who are engineers, according to the Task Force on American Innovation, is only 16.8% (compared to a world average of 26.4%). Further, the National Academy of Sciences ranks the United States 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students who receive their undergraduate degree in science or engineering.

It seems that our college students, who are just as passionate about changing the world as they were during the Kennedy presidency, no longer see engineering as the way to do it.

There is no simple answer for this disconcerting trend. Perhaps the sense of urgency for American scientists and engineers has been toned down since after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Or maybe the role of engineers in confronting and solving today’s grand challenges hasn’t been properly addressed and thus understood. In any case, today idealism and engineering just are not thought to complement one another.

Scanning those university brochures, which try to persuade future college or graduate students to apply to their respective programs, one thing notably missing from the discussion is wealth creation. In their appeal to students’ idealism, you rarely (if ever) see university programs mention creating wealth – distinct from making money – as a source of changing the world.

This is discouraging because looking back in time there is nothing in the history of mankind that has helped overcome President Kennedy’s common enemies of man more than the creation of wealth. It is wealth, after all, that creates jobs for people and puts food on their tables. It is what increases the global standard of living and affords the opportunity of dynamic social mobility. Only wealth creation has improved, and can improve, the collective condition of humanity on such a national and global scale.

And there is no better field for a young person to go into if they want to create wealth than engineering (really, any science, technology, engineering, mathematics [STEM] field). The great epochs of economic change – the Industrial Revolution and Digital Revolution – were, at their most fundamental levels, began by engineers and the entrepreneurs who commercialized their inventions.

These revolutions spread unprecedented levels of prosperity across the globe. The human lifespan has more than doubled, people can now safely travel across their own countries and visit others around the globe in mere hours, and starvation is now its lowest level ever.

The field of engineering isn’t the first that comes to mind for those young students to channel their idealism. But it has, however, been proven as one of the most far-reaching and consequential fields for the betterment of mankind throughout history. This needs to be recognized, and urgently.

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brent clark March 23, 2012 at 12:46 pm

I’m sure a contributing factor to a lower percentage of students choosing a STEM degree is related to the shift in mentality that everyone must go to college. Seems like we have less qualified or dumbed down student populations, so if I cant hack it in the STEMs, sociology sounds nice, maybe I will finish in 5.5 years.)

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