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RE: Educated vs. "Trained" (long)

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The bottom line is that the general level of education in the US is not
keeping up with the demands of the modern world economies. If the US does
not produce the highest educational levels we will continue to see white
collar jobs go overseas. We keep expending more money on schools and receive
poor results. But we try to make each individual student equal and result in
lower goals for everybody. Foreign schools concentrate the level of
educational effort on the capabilities of the student.

I agree with those who state that critical thinking skills are missing. We
must also encourage continued education throughout our lives.

-----Original Message-----
From: Charley Hamilton [mailto:chamilto(--nospam--at)]
Sent: Wednesday, July 23, 2003 1:29 PM
To: seaint(--nospam--at)
Subject: Re: Educated vs. "Trained" (long)

> My wife bought and read a book a few months ago, titled "Endangered Minds:
> Why Kids Can't Think." The premise of the book is that our society has, in
> general, been "dumbed down" so much that no one is REQUIRED to think, most
> kids' activities are passive, and the implications for the future are
> staggering. As an elementary school teacher, she is prepared to testify
> this is the case: Many kids DON'T think any more, because they aren't
> expected to.

I think this is a related problem, but largely a parallel issue
rather than a direct precursor to our topic of focused
engineering curricula.  It is related in the sense that I have
had many (younger) students ask me exactly how to do something,
get the answer that it depends on the circumstances, give them
a specific set of circumstances, and they then come back to
complain when their blind repetition of the same process results
in irrational results.

I believe this is an outgrowth of teaching to tests (or similar
standardized performance goals), rather than teaching critical
thinking to standards established by the expertise of the
instructor.  Teachers are trained professionals and likely have
a much better idea of appropriate performance metrics than the
majority of those who establish the "unbiased, uniform, carefully
neuter" standardized examinations.

As an undergraduate, I moaned and complained that my professors
taught me all sorts of "theory" that was outmoded, and never got
to the "code" that everyone used to design.  *sigh*  My only excuse
is that I was younger and hopefully dumber then.  The
"outmoded theory" is a lot more useful than simply regurgitating
the code.  Now, I wish I could track down every instructor I had
from grammar school on and thank them for teaching me *how* to
think instead of *what* to think.

In this regard, I concur with Jake Watson's complaint about
having ideas "shoved down [one's] throat".  This is quite typical
of current post-secondary educational systems, and even many
secondary schools.  Presenting different, or even conflicting,
ideas to students helps them to learn how to compare and contrast
systems of thought, etc.  Requiring the students to regurgitate
these ideas in order to maintain acceptable academic standing
is abhorrent to me.  Requiring them to *think* about things with
which they disagree, formulate and present a cogent argument for
*why* they disagree, and grading them on this thought process seems
like the ideal.

I must admit, I seldom see this ideal anymore.  There is "truth"
as given by the professor to the students, and there is
everything else.  Supporting *anything* else is often an
invitation to your own immolation, albeit verbal these days.

> IMO, this is the same attitude being manifest here. Why I should have to
> explain to my own adult kids--much less any engineer in a forum like this
> one--why "education matters" is beyond me.

The question in my mind is not whether or not people see
education as mattering; the vast majority of people do not,
pure and simple.  The question is, of those who do see it
as mattering, what aspects and freedoms in that education
do they value.  Jake and people of similar mind seem to value
the ability to focus only on that in which they are interested.
Taken too far, this could create structural engineering
graduates whose single-minded devotion to structural engineering
has left them without an education in how to design a footing
for soil bearing failure.  Not taken far enough, the outcome is
akin to the results of current secondary education:  a passing
familiarity with a wide variety of subjects, insufficient depth in
any one subject area to be useful, and the uncanny ability to
parrot back what the instructor has said in order to obtain the
highest available marks for the work assigned.

I lean towards greater flexibility in education, but
preserving some required "breadth" classes.  I do not
think that breadth of education must necessarily come at the
expense od depth.  However, I do believe that the pendulum has
swung too far in the breadth direction in some cases, but not
far enough in others.

If I may (for those who haven't given up reading yet), an

As an undergraduate starting only 9 years ago, the General
Institute Requirements (GIRs) for my education were:

Physics (mechanics) - 1 semester
Physics (E&M) - 1 semester
Chemistry (acid/base & crystallography) - 1 semester
Biology - 1 semester
Calculus (single and multivariate) - 2 semesters

Two semesters of science "distribution" classes, which had
to come from a set of courses approved at the academic
senate level. For me, these included an advanced
mathematics course and a computer science course.

12 semesters of humanities/social science subjects of which
three had to come from a set of five "distribution" categories,
with no two from the same category.  The other
nine could be any combination that the student chose.
The student was required to identify a "concentration"
(not quite a minor, but so close you could taste it) for
their humanities studies.  This had to be different for
humanities students than their major studies.
The distribution areas were:

Category 1: Literary and Textual Studies
Category 2: Language, Thought, and Value
Category 3: Visual and Performing Arts
Category 4: Cultural and Social Studies
Category 5: Historical Studies

(I got this from their webpage.  I long ago forgot
the HASS-D titles.)

Composition and technical writing requirements, which could
either be satisfied by taking coursework or demonstrating

*Everyone* had to take these GIRs, regardless of major.  It
introduced the engineers to Thoreau and the English majors to
differential equations.  I won't pretend that everyone came
away with a substantial desire to learn more, but a better
understanding on one anothers' disciplines was gained by (almost)

I started studying engineering as a sophomore (no AP credits),
was one course shy of a minor in archaeology before they
cancelled the program, and still got out in four years.
I know students who are at easily as smart as I was, and they
don't get to *start* engineering courses until third year and
often don't graduate until their 5th year.  They have
a wide number of "humanities" distribution courses, but
I have yet to see science distribution courses, a universal
requirement for 2 semesters of calculus, or any other "reverse"
science breadth requirement for humanities students.
Some universities don't even require humanities students to
study calculus or physics whatsoever.

I have a feeling that greater emphasis on *how* to think than
*what* to think, and a more equitable distribution of breadth
requirements would substantially improve the educational system,
and help cut down on "pork barrel" breadth requirements.
Everyone would have something outside their major to study,
and greater understanding might be had by all.

As always, just my $0.02 USD.  Although this was long enough
to be two bits worth of opinion, just through sheer volume.


Charles Hamilton, PhD EIT               Faculty Fellow
Department of Civil and                 Phone: 949.824.3752
     Environmental Engineering           FAX:   949.824.2117
University of California, Irvine        Email: chamilto(--nospam--at)

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