Why you should care
Because critical thinking is key to success in any field.
Rose McDermott is a professor of international relations at Brown University and a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her research spans various disciplines including political science, psychology, biology, and development and gender studies.
A student of mine, a couple of years back, double majored in computer science and political science because she could not make up her mind. She preferred politics but thought she would get a better job as a CS major. After graduation, she indeed got a great tech job in Boston. But when she wrote to me two years later, to request a letter of recommendation for law school, she informed me that she had been the only one of the group hired with her who had not been fired. Her reasoning? “They were all pure CS majors, and they could not talk to clients or write up a proposal or report to save their lives. All those papers I resented writing in my political science classes saved my job.”
My former student’s story is not unusual. When recruiters and potential employers call me for references on graduating students, the most common questions I get are whether the person can look a client in the eye and shake their hand without looking away, and whether they can write a coherent sentence that does not start “Let x = .” This past spring, the founder of a startup called me about an advisee he was considering hiring for an important and lucrative position. “I have no idea how good his programming skills are,” I started to say, “since I taught him Introduction to International Relations —” “You think I care about that shit?” the founder cut me off. He explained that he was buried in résumés from world-class coders. “What I really need — but can’t find — is someone who can talk to a client without drooling,” he said. “That’s why I’m calling you.” This entrepreneur had learned that social skills are still the best tool in a firm’s arsenal for sealing deals.
STEM training matters, of course, and no one says it is not necessary. The problem is that it is often not sufficient, and your future bosses know it.
In a new poll on education and the future of work (full results here), OZY and SurveyMonkey asked which college major prepares students best for the workforce of the future. Nearly half of the respondents picked computer science and engineering, 15 percent selected social sciences such as economics, 14 percent picked hard sciences like biology. But just 9 percent singled out humanities. That means 91 percent of America is missing the true value in training the mind in complex analysis. As I always tell my students before essay exams: I care a lot less about what you think than how you think. I would rather they disagree with me by asking complex questions, marshaling appropriate evidence in support of their point and carefully weighing alternative arguments than agree with me using sloppy thinking.
STEM training matters, of course, and no one says it is not necessary. The problem is that it is often not sufficient, and your future bosses know it. Indeed, according to the executive summary for a recent American Academy of Arts and Sciences report, “Three out of four employers want schools to place more emphasis on the skills that the humanities and social sciences teach: critical thinking and complex problem-solving, as well as written and oral communication.”
Excellent training in the social sciences and humanities provides a series of skills like critical thinking that can be flexibly adapted toward many different kinds of jobs and tasks. Accurate analysis of any sort fundamentally depends on basic skills in reading, writing and speaking that all too often are undervalued but essential, not only for successful and productive employment but also for deep personal life satisfaction. Yet these skills are sorely lacking in our education system today and, as a result, in our wider society: That same report indicates that less than 25 percent of our 8th- and 12th-grade students are proficient in basic reading, writing and civics.
It is easy to say that such skills are no longer relevant in a high-tech world. But if we look at the state of today’s political upheaval, including the horrific violence in Charlottesville, it is impossible to think that a greater emphasis on achieving cultural, historical and ethical expertise is not absolutely essential. How else can we adequately address the huge challenges — climate, disease and violence — confronting our world?
As the AAAS report notes, we need future American leaders who are trained as “[e]xperts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts.” The report also points to a need for “elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history.” Such skills are taught, if at all, almost exclusively in social science and humanities courses.
STEM can teach skills that are critical for getting jobs, and at its best can provide students with the tools to solve some of our most pressing technical challenges. But these skills are best used in concert with the contextual perspective that allows them to understand the meaning and significance of what they discover, and to effectively communicate these complexities to decision-makers.
You can take the full poll for yourself by scrolling down in the box below.