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No. 1290:
Risk and Vocation

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.

Science Magazine 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 guaranteed.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Lemann, N., Sidebar in Science, Vol. 278, 21 Nov. 1997, pg. 1410.

See also a related episode, No. 672.


Stereopticon photo courtesy of Margaret Culbertson