By Nick Veronin
As Mountain View High School's class of 2012 marched over the synthetic turf of Carl Anderson Field in their black caps and gowns on June 1, they were all smiles. If any were worried about graduating into the fourth year of a recession, they didn't show it.
But even if the 434 Mountain View High School graduates were focusing on their accomplishments, some of them have already begun to take the steps they hope will ensure their economic security in the years to come.
Before taking their final steps as high school students, three soon-to-be MVHS graduates talked to the Voice about their college plans. All three are set to begin studying in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — STEM, as it is called in education circles. None of them plans to focus much on the liberal arts.
These two young men and one young woman are evidence of a trend in higher education, which values career-oriented, vocational training over the study of literature, philosophy, history and the arts — the humanities.
In Fyodor Dostoyevski's 1864 novel, "Notes From Underground," the narrator rails against social scientists of his age for applying logic and the scientific method to their thinking about humanity — arguing that it is impossible to describe the human condition mathematically and that mankind is inherently illogical.
Mountain View High School graduating senior Kamron Sarhadi has never read "Notes From Underground" and probably won't when he heads to U.C. Davis in the fall.
Writing assignments often seem tedious to him, he says, and while he does read for pleasure occasionally, "it's never been a huge part of my life."
Science and math have always been his thing, he says. A degree in one of the STEM fields is bound to give him a leg up over those of his peers who study the arts or humanities, he says.
"It's a way bigger risk," he reasons, referring to an acting or philosophy degree. "You're obviously not guaranteed a job out of college. I admire anyone who pursues their passion, but it's the whole idea of whether you're investing in something that's really going to pay off in the future."
Sarhadi's utilitarian, career-oriented view of his future academic career is likely mirrored by a great many of his classmates — at least if New Yorker writer Ken Auletta's observations of the attitudes of Stanford students have any parallels in the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District.
Auletta's recent article, "Get Rich U," highlights the connection between businesses and Stanford University and asks whether the school is too focused on turning out businessmen and -women, whether the students are too focused on making their first million and if not enough time is spent studying the classics and asking existential questions. A total of eight graduating seniors from the district — four from each MVHS and LAHS — were accepted to the prestigious Peninsula university this year.
Craig Marker, who addressed the MVHS graduating class along with Sarhadi at the June 1 ceremony, has been accepted to U.C. San Diego and plans to pursue a degree in computer science.
"There are a lot of job opportunities in computer science, which is always a plus," Marker says. "To major in a field that is math-oriented or science-oriented, I feel like I can do anything I want." But, like Sarhadi, he insists that his decision wasn't solely career oriented. "I've always loved math and always been good in math."
Though he may have a stronger interest in STEM subjects, Marker is still planning to take some humanities courses in college. He doesn't want to be so focused on one subject that he is blind to everything else.
"I want to stay broad," he says. "I think having an understanding of the humanities is important — not being ignorant. But I definitely think majoring in broad studies that don't have an obvious application in the real world can put students in a poor position."
With the world in the midst of another severe economic downturn, it is hard to find flaws in Sarhadi and Marker's logic. Why wouldn't they pursue degrees in fields that will give them a greater chance of landing a job when they graduate?
Then again, if the humanities teach us what it means to be human, what are students who disregard the liberal arts missing? Are art and culture being replaced with cold, steely logic? Is it more important to pursue money than it is to wonder about the meaning of life?
Sarah Benett, an incoming premed student at Johns Hopkins University, doesn't think so. Like Sarhadi and Marker, she says that she was "always a math and science person." But for her, medicine isn't merely a smart career choice. "I wanted to help people," she explains.
In addition to studying at Johns Hopkins, Benett also plans to play soccer. Originally she wanted to pursue her passion at a Division 1 school, but she ultimately decided against it for a number of reasons — not the least of which is that she will be getting a much better education at Johns Hopkins (a Division 3 school) than she would have at any of the Division 1 schools she had considered.
All three teens say they have passions that aren't related to science, technology, math or engineering. Sarhadi likes to make hip-hop music, and Marker said he has always enjoyed public speaking. But each view education as a venture capitalist might view a group of startup companies — as a series of potential investments. And, in true Silicon Valley fashion, all three want to get the most out of their investments.
They say they are optimistic. If they make wise investments now, all three say they will have time to do unplug down the road and enjoy penning a clever rap or kicking the soccer ball. "Life is long," Marker says. "You'll find happiness in whatever you do."