Monday, July 19, 2010

Correspondence

Withy:
So why did you flunk out of college?

FLG:
Booze, skiing, and a general lack of interest in engineering that I was too stupid to recognize.

Withy:
I have an image of Wile E. Coyote with a jet pack, skis, a bottle, and a little pin on his shirt saying “Otium!”

I was going to email Withy directly, but decided that I might as well post my response. If any of you stumbled across a blog by the me when I failed out of college you'd have never recognized that it was me. Not simply because I was young and immature, but because I had vastly different intellectual interests.

Part, ok, probably a large part, of my vociferous condemnation of science and engineering as necessary to compete in a global economy comes from my personal experience. My engineering education, which thankfully gave me a good understanding of math and science plus tension versus compression, was devoid of many of the most important things in education. Put simply, almost no attention was paid to human questions. It was all formulas, forces, and functions. Even something as fundamental as writing was represented by a single course, entitled something like "Writing and Communication for Engineers."

Now, I was too stupid to realize at that time that engineering is not where my academic interest lies. Perhaps if I'd spent more time thinking about academics than the current conditions in Vail, then maybe I'd have noticed in time. Nevertheless, I didn't.

It wasn't until years later when I was watching a panel at the Kennedy School at Harvard on C-SPAN. I forget all the people who were on the panel, but I do remember that Bill Bennett and James Woolsey were there. Some LaRouchie stood up and started on some rant about Paul Wolfowitz being a Straussian. Most people simply wanted to shut-off the guy's mic and kick him out. But Bennett demurred. He dissected the guy's argument, then ripped each piece of it to shreds, and finally explained what being a Straussian actually means. Woolsey chimed in a couple of times, if I remember correctly, which is why I remember him being there.

Anyway, I remember thinking that although I knew all sorts of things about the physical world and mathematics, I was largely ignorant about the world of people and political ideas. Moreover, I lacked many of the requisite communication and debating skills to have done what Bill Bennett had done. Ever since my educational goals have been almost entirely the reverse of what I learned in engineering school. Not that the knowledge or skills gained during those years is useless. Quite the contrary, I use much of it everyday. It's just that Bill Bennett seemed educated in the way I wanted to be, even if I didn't agree with him on certain or even many things. Indeed, perhaps not agreeing with him on certain things, and knowing that my ass would be handed to me in a debate with him, was partially what prompted me to change course.

So, none of you asked, but oddly, I know as much about economics and political philosophy as I do today because some dumbass LaRouchie went on a rant almost a decade ago.

8 comments:

arethusa said...

I have to say, the smartest students I've had or known have either been home-schooled, self-taught, or had something in their past - like dropping out of high school - that belies the idea that advanced education is good for you.

The Maximum Leader said...

I am glad that some LaRochie (as you well put it) actually had a positive influence on someone.

Withywindle said...

Thank you for the reply; interesting.

Coming from a different corner -- that of the humanities types who dismiss engineers because they're soulless number-crunchers -- I've always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder for engineers, scientists, etc. (Partly comes from growing up reading SF.) I still remember the engineer in college who was quite nettled at all the humanities types who thought he had to know humanities to be civilized, but had neither desire nor ability to learn basic math and science. I thought he had a point--knowing neither math nor science myself.

A small political note: I think the political constellation matters in such prejudices. When I was going to college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, part of the dislike of engineers and scientists was, I think, also dislike of them for being more Republican (and hence presumptively soulless). At some point the political constellations shifted, engineers and scientists became more Democratic, and the humanities types gussied themselves up as defenders of science--I presume with as much ignorance of science and engineering as ever.

Flavia said...

Indeed, perhaps not agreeing with him on certain things, and knowing that my ass would be handed to me in a debate with him, was partially what prompted me to change course.

This is one of the pithiest arguments I've seen for the "critical thinking skills" that we in the humanities claim to provide. And I wish more people--students, for sure, but also politicians, pundits, and average citizens--felt the same way about their opinions: that having opinions don't mean shit, if you can't present them in a (reasonably) convincing way to someone who disagrees with you.

Andrew Stevens said...

I still remember the engineer in college who was quite nettled at all the humanities types who thought he had to know humanities to be civilized, but had neither desire nor ability to learn basic math and science. I thought he had a point--knowing neither math nor science myself.

There are probably almost as large a percentage of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers who think you have to know calculus to count yourself educated, but have very little knowledge of humanities.

I'm the opposite of FLG in that I started in the humanities (philosophy and history) and then switched gears and decided to make my living in mathematics. My love is still for the humanities, but my mathematical abilities are rarer and therefore easier to monetize. Of course, I'm probably just proving Withy right about soulless number-crunchers by saying that, but ultimately I chose money over status.

Withywindle said...

AS: To clarify, it's my milieu that thinks of soulless number crunchers; I've been trying to disassociate myself from that point of view.

Flavia said...

I still remember the engineer in college who was quite nettled at all the humanities types who thought he had to know humanities to be civilized, but had neither desire nor ability to learn basic math and science.

I heard that a bit in college, too, and have tended to agree with it (as I've said here and elsewhere)--but it's true that a) I went to an institution better-known for the humanities than for the sciences, so someone who chose to enroll at INRU rather than MIT or CalTech was likely someone who actively wanted an education that included the humanities, and b) the scientists, engineers, and mathematicians I befriended were likely to be (by virtue of being my friends) people who had strong interests in the arts and humanities.

Those friends are among the most creative people I know--in their work lives as well as in their spare time. But I'm willing to believe my sample size is unrepresentative.

Andrew Stevens said...

Withywindle: Yes, rereading your comment I can see that's what you meant. Sorry for misreading it.

In reply to Arethusa, I do think that at certain levels, the best students will be the ones with "blots" on their record. I.e. at a truly elite school, you won't find any students with blots on their record because they couldn't get in. But at a lower level institution, you will find some great students who settled for that institution because of the blot (be it home-schooling, self-taught, or dropping out of high school) and they likely will be the best students at the institution.

I think advanced education is invariably good for a person, but advanced schooling is not necessarily.

 
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.