Stay in college

The pitch of e-commerce boosters goes something like this: Our industrial economy, now in a post-industrial stage, is in transition to an e-commerce economy. Doing business online at the speed of a micro-chip has the potential to dwarf the first Industrial Revolution by bringing the entire world into the Internet economy.

Cisco Systems president John Chambers said as much to thousands of attendees last week at the Comdex computer show in Las Vegas. He travels around the world saying: "Every company in every industry is in a state of transition."

OK, a little boosterism is in order. From 1995 to the present, e-commerce grew in revenue from $5 billion to $507 billion. Mr. Chambers's high-flying company manufactures switching systems, network routers, and other essential components that make up the backbone of the Internet.

But he gets carried away when he advocates a transition from degree-oriented education toward a concentration on skills and competitiveness.

Yes, a new workforce is transforming and being transformed by e-business. But the exodus of math and engineering students from the academy to Internet start-up companies, all prior to graduation, if unchecked, is the academic equivalent of having a military officer corps neither coming from, nor responsible to, the civilian population.

In the age of bits and bytes, the well-educated traditional four-year liberal arts degree remains as valuable to an individual first, and then the broader economy, as ever. Someone who is "trained," may use computers to make the lines at registration or the bookstore shorter. An educated person can use the time saved in the library, or the lecture hall, not just at the keyboard.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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