Sunday, April 03, 2016

What is higher education for?

I have blogged in plenty about how when I was a high school student, an overwhelming majority of students aimed for engineering or medicine.  Even though I never really had any dreams of engineering, I too went that route because I did not know any better as a seventeen year old.

People in India then, and in many developing countries even now, have this obsession with engineering and medicine for very good reasons--they seem to provide a higher probability of jobs and income compared to other routes.  And,  perhaps even a path out of the country should one choose to leave.

As one who has always been interested in understanding the humanity, I schemed and planned to make my exit from engineering and from the country too.  But, the young and idealistic commie in me could have been easily misled into less constructive paths; thankfully, I have never believed in violence.  

Soon after the events of 9/11, and with incidents thereafter, it was interesting to see that many of the agents of destruction had been well educated and, yes, with a technology background.  That set of issues is the context for this essay, which begins with:
In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad hoped to kill dozens of pedestrians when he parked his Nissan Pathfinder near Times Square, loaded with improvised bombs. Four months earlier, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to bring down a trans-Atlantic flight carrying 289 passengers by igniting explosives sewn into his underwear. Last year, Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on two military facilities in Tennessee, killing five soldiers.
Like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Azahari Husin, and Mohamed Atta, these men sought to commit acts of terror in the name of Islam.
But all six also shared something else. They had studied engineering.
Researchers have long noticed that an oddly large number of jihadists have engineering backgrounds. 
To which we need to also add Osama bin Laden, who graduated with a degree in civil engineering.  (His fellow brain, Zawahiri, was a medical graduate--a surgeon.)  It does not mean that engineering breeds terrorists.  It is simply a reflection of the fact that many of the thinking young in developing countries study engineering.    

My interest in this post is not to explore terrorism, but about one of the threads in that essay:
Donna M. Riley, a professor in the department of engineering education at Virginia Tech, thinks that traditional programs not only attract certain kinds of minds but also reinforce positivist patterns of thinking. General-education courses are intended to broaden students’ perspectives, but those requirements are increasingly being narrowed. And she worries that the less exposure that nascent engineers have to the humanities and social sciences, the less they will be able to appreciate other people’s perspectives. As it is, she says, "engineers spend almost all their time with the same set of epistemological rules."
Gambetta and Hertog describe how traditional engineering programs might inadvertently spur the kind of loss of significance that Kruglanski describes. "Engineering curricula anywhere are a giant showcase of Western technological achievements," they write. In developing countries, such triumphalism carries an edge of humiliation: "They throw the economic backwardness of local societies into sharp relief."
The engineering program that I did was no different from programs at other colleges back then (which is the case even now)--we had no contextualization of engineering against the background of the humanities and the social sciences.  There was not even one course that made us think about what we could contribute to society through engineering.  It was simply engineering for the sake of engineering, which then threw "the economic backwardness of local societies into sharp relief."  To most engineering students this backwardness becomes an incentive for their own material progress.  But, for me, this contrast was unbearable.  I had to understand the reasons for the relative backwardness.  I needed to understand the world.

Contemporary engineering education in the United States is also increasingly about engineering for the sake of engineering, which has serious social implications of a different kind:
Engineering curricula in the United States may unintentionally close minds, too, according to a 2014 study by Erin A. Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University. Cech, who earned undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and sociology, analyzed survey responses by 326 students in four engineering programs. Between their freshman year and graduation, their self-reported answers showed drops in measures of public-mindedness, including a commitment to professional and ethical responsibilities and a social consciousness.
The discipline’s culture and curricula emphasize "an ideology of depoliticization," she argues, which treats nontechnical factors as irrelevant to the work of "real" engineering. The notion of meritocracy also runs through the discipline, she writes, but this ideal tends to accept existing social structures and relationships as inherently fair. "Engineering education," Cech writes, "fosters a culture of disengagement that defines public welfare concerns as tangential to what it means to practice engineering."
Meritocracy run amok is the story of contemporary Silicon Valley.  Public welfare?  Social consciousness?

If only higher education could help us think about issues that are much bigger, and more important, than our selves!


Ramesh said...

We have debated the need for a more rounded education many times, but to conclude that engineering fosters Western imperialism is going way too far. And to imply that somehow terrorists took that route because of single focused education is also way off.

Everything you say about engineering education is equally true of any branch of study. If only economics and finance be required learning for the humanities crowd ....... :)

Over specialisation is a feature of education, and maybe careers too and its has its negative side.

Mike Hoth said...

The trouble with rounder educations is that they are forced upon people who don't want them. When I entered engineering school (where I rediscovered religion upon noticing I'd entered Hell) there was no bigger waste of my time than "Common Core" education. Sure I played World of Warcraft 60 hours a week, maybe more, but that cost much less than an art class and I didn't feel that I was throwing my money away. My sister agreed that the arts were a pesky requirement that got in the way of her genetics degree, bemoaning her film class as useless trash.
This is the trouble with STEM majors. We're told how important our field is, that we'll make lots of money and the job pool is endless. Learning a foreign language is for linguists, art classes are for people who like to be hungry, the humanities need to be thrown out altogether.
I'm slowly teaching my sister the biotechnical analyst that her field needs mine. Sure she's working to make drought-resistant sorghum so that Africans won't starve, but how will she know where to send the seeds? Where are these hungry Africans, what agencies can be trusted to deliver such a valuable asset, how will neighbors react when one group of people has a sustainable food source? I ask her the questions that she needs answered and she wants to know where she can learn that stuff. Engineers need the same treatment. Don't tell them to take a geography course, tell them to take a course for engineers that happens to be about geography. That's how I ended up in a film class titled "Geography and Film", after all.

Sriram Khé said...

You both might be interested in this front page news item in the local paper that I woke up to:
"students practice engineering with a human face"

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