New data shows that students whose parents make less money pursue more “useful” subjects, such as math or physics.
In 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he laid out his plans for what his children and grandchildren would devote their lives to. Having himself taken the time to master “Politicks and War,” two revolutionary necessities, Adams hoped his children would go into disciplines that promoted nation-building, such as “mathematicks,” “navigation,” and “commerce.” His plan was that in turn, those practical subjects would give his children’s children room “to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”
Two-hundred and thirty-five years later, this progression—“from warriors to dilettantes,” in the words of the literary scholar Geoffrey Galt Harpham—plays out much as Adams hoped it would: Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.