Why do American students choose non-mathematical careers?

It’s widely accepted that in India, China, and other countries the best and brightest students choose courses and careers in engineering and the mathematical sciences, while in the US a much greater fraction of elite students instead choose subjects in the humanities, such as history and literature, and (largely) non-mathematical sciences, such as anthropology and psychology.

There are a number of possible explanations for this. I’d always assumed that the biggest factor had something to do with income distribution and how easy it was to be “middle class”, in the sense of meeting all major material needs with disposable income to spare: if only a small proportion of the population meets that threshold then the best and brightest are willing to invest to acquire specialized skills to separate themselves from the rest of the population. If the majority of the population can be middle class anyway, then such specialization is less necessary. (I’d argue that mathematical and engineering qualifications greatly increase the likelihood of achieving a good dependable salary, but that other factors are more likely to affect the chances of becoming extremely wealthy.) As a consequence of this, cultures with smaller and more elite middle classes attach more prestige to engineering and mathematical qualifications, with is a further incentive for students to choose those fields. I’d guess that there are amplifying factors to social prestige, as well: if one field attracts the best students and becomes more competitive, then it becomes even more prestigious, which makes the field even more attractive to the best students.

The above is an “externalist” explanation, based on the consequences of different field/career choices. As appealing as such explanations are from a classical economic perspective, I’m not sure they accurately describe how real people choose professions. While long-term consequences are factors, most decisions are made on a more short-term basis: people choose to do what is easiest or most enjoyable right now. An “internalist” account for why students might prefer mathematical sciences for their own sake is thus relevant.

The argument I’ve heard before is that different pedagogy could be a factor: other countries make mathematics more enjoyable and satisfying than the US does. This jibes with my own experience of a dysfunctional and inept US education system, however other countries’ systems appear even worse, so this explanation doesn’t hold up.

A fascinating post from a student educated in India proposes another pedagogical explanation: it’s not that the US is worse than other countries at making the sciences interesting and satisfying, it’s that the US is better than other countries at making all the other subjects appealing. History, for example, is taught in other countries as nothing but a huge collection of facts; the US instead focuses much more on narrative and analysis. According to this student:

I could never conceive of what a historian did because history seemed to me to be a body of well-defined facts without any idea of what methods a historian uses. I had no idea that there was even a science called sociology (beyond school, my reading consisted of voraciously reading pulp novels. Since access to good books in India is limited, I didn’t come into contact with it in my outside reading either). But on the other hand, I was well-aware of the “methods” of mathematics and the mathematical sciences. It was easy to imagine what scientists, mathematicians or engineers do: they solve problems! It wasn’t so easy to imagine what historians or sociologists did. (I probably thought they had to master a lot of facts in order to be historians – and who wanted to do that??!)

This theory suggests that the US focus on improving the education system has actually succeeded for elite students in some fields, but that there have been unforeseen consequences. Successfully engaging students in the humanities is a laudable goal on its own, but if we fail to engage them equally in the mathematical sciences then we’ll continue to see students migrate away from those fields.