Evil Engineering: The Education vs. The Students
Peter W. De Bonte
The Education vs. The StudentsClaimer: All of the connections one might draw between the characters and events in this document and actual characters and events can and very well might be true. So sue me. (It might be entertaining.)
"Wow," I exclaimed, "I'm so inspired! I just spent 4 hours with my English teacher and I finally understand!"
My dormmates looked at me very strangely as I ran thru from room to room proclaiming that I had actually been enlightened in Introduction to Interpretation, a course feared and hated even by people majoring in the department. "Oh no, they've warped him." "What did they do to you?" "Are you sure you're still sane?" "Hey ......" Well, Some comments were not reprintable, which shows that I am not the only student who dislikes the setup of the curriculum here.
It's the last week of classes and I have a final paper due. The assignment is to be based on some personal revelation and I have finally found it. Valarie, my English instructor has helped me finally see the through my previous draft, which was, in reality, a large complaint against the English class specificly. I had intended it to be an argument for more choice in the engineering curriculum in my particular school, CMU. Now realize that it is not particular at all. The same situation would arise in all universities, because they all have the same rules, the same system, and that is exactly what David Noble was trying to say in "Technology as People", the eighth chapter of his book, "America by Design".
I really do like being here at CMU. It's a school with an excellent reputation for my major, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and it has interesting technical lectures as well as interesting people.
Dispite my positive feelings, I also have some disputes. I am not SuperStudent by any means. When I accepted I new I would probably be in the middle of the class ranking, or perhaps slightly below. Federal law offers me an option to this: I am allowed to define my own minimum full-time course load by law because of my various learning disabilities, but I hate to use this as an excuse. I also do not wish to spend eight or more years as an undergraduate because on the one hand this would be a large chunk of my life in which most students would already have a graduate degree. On the other hand I already do not know how I am paying for only four or possibly five years of my education and any additional years would be even more financially painful.
David Nobel complains that engineering schools were designed completely ignoring the Flexner Report of 1910. Aberham Flexner was an educational reformer who opened his own medical school . His "unorthodox methods" included, among other things, students being free to work at their own pace, which allowed them to start their college educations much earlier. To some his methods may seem strange, but he was respected as the Carnegie Foundation commissioned his report to review medical education in 1910, and due his findings almost half of the one hundred fifty five schools reviewed were closed. (FLEXNER, Abraham, An Autobiography (1960); Numbers, R.L., ed., The Education of American Physicians: Historical Essays (1980))] However, due to the setup of the system, as I mentioned before, I do not have the resources, either time or money, to spend as much time as I could use in undergraduate education.
One excuse I have heard in support of the core is some of the core requirements are made by the contributors to the school. For example, Mr. Multi the Millionaire says, "I will contribute this significant percentage of the budget, but if you do not require students to take English during their freshman year I will withdraw this funding." This seems to make the university provide the minimum they possibly can to fulfil these requirements.
Evidently they are inclined to provide the minimum and no more. Why should they? David quotes William E. Wickenden, "The very word university comes from the Latin word for corporation..." Why would a corporation want to put money into something that will not pay back. Obviously it is wiser to put more money into what will bring the corporation more returns. In the case of engineering curriculums, why should a school administrator put money into more humanities courses when his school is known for it's engineering curriculum? Perhaps some students don't want to take humanities in the first place, in which case they are not going to care how much money is poured into the courses. The students bring the money and once they are in the school they are going to say, "These humanities courses are not very good.", but this does not matter. As long as they are attending a school in which their future employers will look at their resume's and say "I see you went to a school that put a great deal of money into your major department", the students are happy and will continue to provide revenue for the corporation.
"Hi, Pete, what's up?", interupted Chris, also an ECE major.
"I'm writing a narrative paper for Interp. Congrats, your the first narrative part!"
"What are you writing about?"
"Well, basicly about why I dislike the non-engineering courses of the engineering curriculum."
"Good! I agree with you. These courses take all my time. I'd much rather be taking some cool electronics course than world history."
"Thanks Chris, well, talk to you later...", I cut him off.
"Ok, I gotta go read my EMail"
Well, this proves my point. Unfortunately, it seems that there are some students, even friends of mine, who have one tracked minds. Chris a perfect example of the student who's apathy perpetuates the pattern of schools providing the minimum.
However, this student is not satisfied. I am not only interested in my major. I am actually interested in certain areas of the humanities, such as classic literature and economics, and in the sciences such as biology and chemistry. I suppose I should feel fortunate that one of these four, economics, will fit into my curriculum. However I will be unable to take the rest of them because humanities requirements in which I am less interested, the requirements which allow the school to provide the minimum, take precedence in the core.
As far as English goes I will be one of the first to claim that a strong command of written and spoken language is important for my life outside academia. Personally I believe a direct approach at teaching me these language skills than an interpretation course would be more useful and thus more appropriate for me. Unfortunately, this type of course is not available to fulfil my core requirements.
The core is attempting to create a public high school curriculum out of a private engineering curriculum. Strict adherence to a set curriculum was required in High School and lower level education in order to gain a spackling of a basis in everything. University education is supposed to be the time when one can finally choose topics in which they are personally interested. Recently I learned that a friend of mine who is a Math and Computer Science major is planning to transfer to a liberal arts school to major in Math and then do graduate work in Computer Science. To make this decision, I thought, he must have thought about the curriculum here, so I had a discussion with him over dinner.
"So why are you planing to transfer?", I asked.
"Well, when I was applying to college I thought that I would be able to learn specific stuff as an undergraduate and then I'd be able to learn other things in graduate school. Now I understand that undergraduate education is the time where one is supposed to learn diverse things and this opportunity is lost if not taken advantage of during the undergraduate years. I'm not getting this from CMU. There are very few courses that I am allowed to take outside my major and those courses are often not very interesting. Here for example, we have a choice of two English courses, and they are so similar that there really is no choice. At the school I plan to transfer to they have an option to spend up to four semesters studying the classics!" He seemed very excited, but then quieted down a bit and asked, "Am I crazy?"
"Sounds interesting to me. Why do you ask if I think you're crazy?"
"Most of my friends say that going to a liberal arts school will get me no where and that I will not be successful if I receive and arts degree rather than a degree in science."
"Does the school you are transfering to have a good curriculum in your intended major?"
"No, that's the problem, they have a whole two Computer Science courses, both of which I am far beyond."
"So will you major in math then?"
"Yes, and then I will major in 'Comp Sci' in graduate courses."
"Sounds like a good plan to me."
"Thanks for understanding..."
I agree strongly with my frustrated friend. If students must take an course in a subject then why not let them choose. Noble seems to agree that liberal education remains necessary: "Specialized science is yearly taking a larger part in industry. If advancement is to remain free, it can only be on the basis of liberal education for the deserving worker. (169)" For writing education, a creative writing course would be more interesting to me, and a technical writing course would be more useful. It stands to reason that any course which a student has their heart in should result in a better performance. Here at Carnegie Mellon the introductory English courses are so alike the average upperclassman will tell a new student to guess which would be best. From my perspective, and asking other students in my class who are presently or have taken the English courses the courses vary more with the instructors' teaching styles than between the two courses offered. But as I have discovered, there is no chance of solving this problem, since it is inherent to an engineering curriculum. Therefore, I must give up engineering (my major) or humanities (my interest). The student may be the center of the university, but the student's interests are not the center of attention.