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Our poets need Pythagoras!

Even though stem job prospects are slim in the 2050s, science education shouldn't be reduced to an elective.

The sciences impose rigour and discipline on our thoughts. They encourage a healthy scepticism and an awareness of the tenuousness of knowledge, which, among other things, keeps our egos in check.

This is part of the New York Times' Op-Eds From the Future series, in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write Op-Eds that they imagine we might read 10, 50 or even 200 years from now. The challenges they predict are imaginary - for now - but their arguments illuminate the urgent questions of today and prepare us for tomorrow. The Opinion piece below is a work of fiction.

LAST week, a few dozen doctors, scientists and engineers marched on Capitol Hill to protest a change in national curriculum under which science would be reduced to an elective course, joining the ranks of physical education, marching band and retail marketing as an optional part of the school day.

"A bot can't do all your thinking for you," the protesters cried, waving posters decorated with poorly-drawn amoebas and mathematical equations. While their art and slogans needed work, their point was worth heeding: we should be strengthening science education, not weakening it.

We are living in a world in which the humanities, once in decline, now reign supreme. Today, 60 per cent of college undergraduates pick a literature or arts major, which emphasises writing, creativity and communication skills. Thirty per cent choose the social sciences, prized for their emphasis on critical thinking. Only 10 per cent receive GS (General Science) degrees, no doubt causing much hand-wringing by their parents, who had hoped their children would choose a path that could lead to viable employment.

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The rise of psychologists, poets and philosophers should come as no surprise. For decades, technology has been automating our most data-heavy professions - with clear benefits to society.

No longer do we fear a misinterpreted X-ray or a mistake on line 40 of our tax return. The computers perform our former jobs much better than we ever did.

The automation of more technical jobs has likewise changed which jobs are most valued, and how they are compensated. The beneficiaries of this shift include caregivers, teachers, human resources professionals and creators.

To illustrate, the average income in Amherst, Mass. - a city full of college professors - is now US$2 million a year, pushing out lawyers, engineers and doctors who can no longer afford to live in the leafy college town.

Striking contrast

It is a striking contrast to the early 21st century, when parents queued up to register their children for coding camps, and well-endowed universities touted their fancy computer science and STEM-focused facilities.

Nowadays, students are graduating from college with little knowledge of the sciences. In the race to prepare their graduates for the most desirable jobs, Stanford, Harvard and MIT (recently renamed the Massachusetts Institute of Teleology) have eliminated most general science requirements, making room for an additional history class or empathy workshop.

But while robots and computers have freed us to develop our softer skills, the outsourcing of science has come at a cost. Our children have lost the ability to understand many of the facts that govern the world around them.

The other day, my preschooler threw a ball in the air and asked his six-year-old sister why it then fell to the ground.

"Existence is a tremendous weight upon one's being," my daughter replied.

"But what about physics!" I wanted to cry.

While it's always fun to attend the annual Philosophy Fair at the local elementary school and to watch your child cobble together his Sartre costume for Halloween, we would do well to make science education a mandatory part of today's public school curriculum.

Science isn't just about making things. It's also about discovery and experimentation, doubt and uncertainty. In the past, it was our task to explore the universe's unknowns; now the computers do all of that. But without a study of science, how can we know what we don't know? How can we know what to be uncertain about?

The sciences impose rigour and discipline on our thoughts. They encourage a healthy scepticism and an awareness of the tenuousness of knowledge, which, among other things, keeps our egos in check.

(Compare that with the self-confidence of our current president, a pompous comparative literature major who frequently quotes neo-post-structuralists when announcing policy decisions.)

A love of science

That is why the proposal to further reduce science education in our schools is a step in the wrong direction. We should cultivate a love of science - a love of inquiry, investigation and exploration. Our children should understand the basic functioning of a robot, not simply expect it to do everything for them.

It's no great loss that physicists are out of work now that a theory of everything has been discovered. That we no longer need engineers to design new telescopes, nor astronomers to interpret what they see. That economics algorithms, unlike the economists who preceded them, can actually predict recessions.

But it is a loss that we no longer understand how these things work and are constructed, that we don't understand them at a conceptual level, and that no teenager today, from Shanghai to San Francisco, can calculate how long it will take a five-cubic-foot bathtub to over-fill if the drain is open but the handle for the faucet has broken off.

It is a loss that our teenagers, while fully equipped to empathise with the faucet's plight and able to write a critical analysis of the faucet's role in 20th-century gender relations, lack the calculus skills to figure out the mathematical answer to the problem, or the curiosity and persistence to simply go looking for the main water shut-off valve.

The elimination of an entire discipline from our curriculum will not, as some might think, better prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow.

Rather, it will turn them into insufferable poets, attuned only to their own monologues, adept at writing sestinas and sonnets but unable to survive without the constant hum of technology that does everything for them, no questions asked. NYTIMES

  • Jessica Powell is the former head of communications for Google and the author of The Big Disruption: A Totally Fictional But Essentially True Silicon Valley Story