If North Korea needs nuclear scientists and rocket scientists to pursue its aggressive international ambitions, it might well conclude that the best way to identify and nurture math capable students is to force all students to pursue mathematics. A free society society, in contrast, might well conclude that the liberty of the individual to refrain from exposure to higher mathematics is a higher value.
Assuming (a great unproven assumption) that requiring students to advance relatively high in the mathematics discipline actually produces more "useful" engineers and scientists or even actually produces more mathematicians with advanced skills, are we as a liberal (true use of the word) society at risk either militarily or economically if we fail to do the same as our potential military or economic rivals are doing? We ought not to forget that the original justification for taxing the whole of society to benefit somebody else's children with an education was the belief that educated children grow up to be productive adults who more than compensate society for the cost of their education. Is it "illiberal" to compel the students to endure the rigors of mathematics in order to identify the potential Einsteins in a given generation when when it is society who bears the cost of their education?
If we review the results of our existing educational establishment, leaving aside the atrocious failure rate and concentrating only on our need as a modern society in an increasingly technological world to produce technologically savvy graduates, are we going to be able to wage war in cyberspace, or outer space, or under the seas with our future crop of graduates? Are we now compensating for domestic failures to produce these kinds of people by importing foreign educated individuals? Has America not always done so to some degree?
America, following the model of great Britain, undertakes to provide a "liberal" education in an effort to produce a Renaissance Man in an increasingly technological world. I have three sons currently in college, two in Europe in one in America so I observe college-level education in Europe and conclude that the objective here is to produce a competent technician. Our American graduate level education is increasingly funded by the federal government or at least subsidized to a great degree by federal and state taxpayers. To a great degree, great universities are in the business of selling high level research to the federal government but a lot of money also goes to producing women's studies majors or graduates who are well-equipped to write eloquently about Emily Dickinson. The decision about the allocation of money is not debated in the general public but it is ad hoc and, in my judgment, too often left to the universities themselves. If the matter is determined in Congress, we have the people's representatives making these decisions but in the real world we know that politicians are motivated by self-interest as much as by the public need. Academicians are certainly no better.
The Libertarian might argue that the curriculum should be left to the individual who will choose his academic and therefore his likely career path free of interference from both the education establishment and the political class. In the end, the market will cause those choices to be in line with need and opportunity or, better put, supply and demand. We are only distorting the process with our subsidies in student loans.
The conservative might well argue that while it certainly matters that we are in an increasingly technological age, the overriding point is that we must have citizens and leaders of virtue and our education establishment has abandoned the 18th and 19th century notion that the point of education is to produce virtuous citizens. As the technological world turns over at an increasing rate, it is hopeless to train a student today in the technical skills he will need in 20 years. Rather, he should be exposed to internal verities, to classical renderings concerning ultimate values, to Christian and Jewish tradition because when the crunch comes it is not a mathematical formula but character which will save us. It will save us, for example, from becoming North Korea.
The academic tells us that you cannot have one without the other, that we must simply endure the waste and cost and silliness of our modern college-level education because a college with a laboratory only is not a college, the place needs the influence of Renaissance Man to become something more than the technical school.
Common sense tells me that we can do better.