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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Future Engineering Education Machine is Almost Here - Part I

I presume that you already know what engineering and science education should morph into in the near future. After all, the distinguished professors of management and psychology are telling you how research should be divorced from teaching and how good teachers and good researchers should be put into two different academic drawers. 

Today, the consensus is to split teaching from research in all disciplines of public academia, thus lowering cost and increasing efficiency.  I find this consensus to be misinformed and potentially harmful to many of the students who will not go to Harvard or Yale to replenish the ranks of our oh-so-smart and so-thoughtful elites.

A complete divorce of research and teaching, vigorously pushed by non-scientists (psychologists, economists, political scientists, business majors, and the like), is akin to a religious belief in absolute right and wrong that simply do not obtain in science.  Dr. Isaak Asimov commented on this belief, which is rooted in scientific ignorance, in a beautiful essay: "The Relativity of Wrong"  (The Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1989, 14(1), 35-44).  English Lit majors beware when you pontificate about science and engineering!

Where we are in the U.S. today is in no small measure an outcome of our elites' superior Ivy League education and their thorough understanding of the universe.  Take, for example, President George W. Bush, a Yale and Harvard graduate. His VP, Dick Chaney, was another failed Yale student and draft dodger, while his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was a political scientist from Princeton.  Yet another prescient guru in this team was the Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, with a B.A. in English from Dartmouth College and MBA from Harvard, just like President Bush.  Paulson's most quotable parting words were: "Who could know that the financial markets would collapse?"

In eight memorable years, those geniuses -  not one with an advanced degree in anything I would consider to be rigorous education - raked up 30% of all U.S. national debt and did more damage to the U.S. than all of our enemies combined over the last century.  Their collective actions are quite an achievement for any Ivy School-educated team. Now, were their academic teachers researchers or lecturers?  Or does it matter?

Of course, to my knowledge, no one suggests that anyone should divorce teaching from research in the Ivy League colleges.  They're fine, as are private high schools.  After all, how could anything be wrong if these schools charge $40-50K per year in tuition, their student-to-faculty ratio is less than 10:1, and they graduate  - and intermarry - most of our presidents, top federal government appointees, CEOs, and other legacy children?

Presently, we are only talking about how to best damage public education at all levels.  And here there is no shortage of deep insights about streamlining the future lives of the gifted children of lesser others.

In summary, public discussion about the future of education has framed the subject in a way that lets private schools off the hook, despite their monumental failures in delivering quality education and instilling social responsibility into their highly-paying customers.  In Part II, I'll explain my thinking about education costs, teaching, and research in academia.