Thursday, April 22, 2010

Don't End Up As Furniture

Competing with the best. The role of engineering education must increasingly focus on fostering leadership and innovation. A key requirement of future engineers will be the independence and creativity necessary to produce long-term economic growth. As barriers to the flow of people, goods, and information have come down, and as the process of economic development proceeds, Asian countries have increasing access to the human, physical, and informational resources need to create top universities.

Richard Levin, the President of Yale, highlights this in the May/June 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled, “Top of the Class: The Rise of Asia’s Universities.” Levin writes the following:

In today’s knowledge economy, no less than in the nineteenth century, when the philosophy of liberal education was articulated by Cardinal John Henry Newman, it is not subject-specific knowledge but the ability to assimilate new information and solve problems that is the most important characteristic of a well-educated person. The Yale Report of 1828 - - an influential document written by Jeremiah Day (who was at the time president of Yale), one of his trustees, and a committee of faculty - - distinguished between “the discipline” and “the furniture” of the mind. Mastering a specific body of knowledge - - acquiring “the furniture” - - is of little permanent value in a rapidly changing world. Students who aspire to be leaders in business, medicine, law, government, or academia need “the discipline” of mind - - the ability to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, confront new facts, and find creative ways to solve problems.

Cultivating such habits requires students to be more than passive recipients of information; they must learn to think for themselves and to structure an argument and defend or modify it in the face of new information or valid criticism. The Oxford-Cambridge “tutorial” system is perhaps the epitome of such pedagogy. The American substitute has been the interactive seminar, in which students are encouraged to take and defend positions in small groups and to challenge, rather than blindly accept, the instructor’s point of view. Examination at top U.S. universities rarely call for a recitation of facts; they call on students to solve problems they have not encountered before or to analyze two sides of an argument and state their own position.

Notice that engineering was not included in the list of professional disciplines. Engineering needs to fundamentally focus on “the discipline” of the mind or end up labeled as “the furniture.”

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