In my 41 years I never taught a student who was a humanities or social sciences major. The only membership that I still maintain is my membership in the American Society for Engineering Education. But not to worry because only 40% of students who go to college major in the liberal arts. So the majority are much like my students were: they want to go to college but they want to get a job too.
My specialty course, the History of Technology was heavily enrolled with juniors and seniors. Once every semester I would come to class and tell the students that the good news and the bad news was the same: in twenty years or less they would be running the country. I would say look around the room and note how smart, or not some of your classmates are. How smart are your dorm mates? There is nobody else!You're better looking, smarter and more conscientious brother or sister is not going to come through the door. The future was them or no one!
My job was to introduce students to the modes of thinking of the humanities and social sciences. "Our" portion of the curriculum was only eight courses over four years and this included a communications component. Our oldest son who is in his early forties and now has some twenty years experience in manufacturing processes notes sadly that there are some things that today's college graduates can't do: they can't write; they can't speak in public and they work in teams. So it goes. The fact that the life span of a student's technical knowledge is about five years. Aside from technical competence what employers are looking for are good communication skills.
Yes, I dealt with subject matter: history, literature and politics and yes one had to choose carefully as you only had a limited number of courses and credits but as was important was to deal with the different modes of thinking. There are different styles of thinking. Students "liked" the style of thinking of their particular major but one kind of knowledge is not by definition superior to another. My son-in-law is an industrial designer by education and he is a visual thinker. I am practically all verbal. I tease him that I could look at a situation for days and think of nothing. He looks at a spatial or mechanical design problem and almost immediately starts to think of another, a better way to configure them.
Some of the main goal of education then is to help students discover what their personal gift is. A criticism, it seems to me, that could be made with some justification about the parents of students who go to school in the Roswell, Alpharetta, Milton area is that they are fixated on the lists of prestigious colleges that appear every year. Is Becky or Jimmy doing well if they are taking fewer advanced placement courses than the neighbor's child? If your child does not go to one of the "top 10" colleges for engineering or pre-law or pre-med is that the end of the world?
The simple fact is that people don't often consider the "value added" component of education. How much is a student's life changed for the better by going to a particular school? I argue with colleagues that Roxbury Community College in Boston which has an abysmally low graduation rate is a very significant school and a huge influence in its geographic area. How many people's lives have changed for the better because they took even one or two courses at Roxbury?
And what of the vocational and technical schools and the technical colleges? There are at least 10,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in Massachusetts because companies cannot find people with the technical skills to do the jobs. If we don't find people soon to replace the retiring people in maintenance in the aviation industry we are all going to have to become more familiar with buses and trains.
But technical education has a fine line to walk. The General Electric Company in Boston wanted to use Wentworth's manufacturing labs 24/7 if possible. General Electric is working on "printing" jet engines from metallic particles: no welds, no seams. Companies want immediately useful and malleable employees. But the purpose of education as opposed to training is more then that. What does the worker do twenty years down the line when the technology has changed? I repeatably ask my students what they were going to do when they had to cope with MELT? That is, if you are as smart as you think you are, what do you do when you are asked to Manage, Explain, Lead and/or Teach?
One kind of knowledge is not better by definition better than another. Technology is life and art is how you feel about it. Aside from social, scientific and technical skills shouldn't the purpose of education be to help students find what they might like to do, what is the path best suited for them? Fortunately, the good news and the bad news is that unlike many of our grandparents, who had to do whatever was legal and paid a wage in order to make a living, our young people have choices. We need to help them make the right ones.