Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What are we being educated for?

Part of my dissertation work is about whether or not engineers think any differently about issues of the environment now than they did a century or so ago, and how these changes (or non-changes) affect technological development. But first, I must ask, What fundamentally drives technological development? The answers are not surprising--materialism, industrialism, and profit. Sure, many might say that technology and the role of the engineer is fundamentally for the good of human beings--to decrease mortality, to combat disease, to provide electricity, to supply clean drinking water. Okay...But, how did the profession of engineering come into being?

As David Noble paints beautifully in his book America by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism, the engineering profession as we know it today stemmed from the rise of modern industrial capitalism, and the need for engineers to fill the matrix of large industrial bureaucracies and corporations. Noble writes:
Modern technology, as the mode of production specific to advanced industrial capitalism, was both a product and a medium of capitalist development. So too, therefore, was the engineer who personified modern technology. In his work he was guided as much by the imperatives that propelled the economic system as by the logic and laws of science. The capitalist, in order to survive, had to accumulate capital at a rate equal to or greater than that of competitors. And since his capital was derived ultimately from the surplus product of human labor, he was compelled to assume complete command over the production process in order to maximize productivity and efficiently extract this product from those who labored for him. It was for this reason that mechanical devices and scientific methods were introduced into the workshop. It was for this reason also that the modern engineer came into being. From the outset, therefore, the engineer was at the service of capital, and, not surprisingly, its law were to him as natural as the laws of science. If some political economists drew a distinction between technology and capitalism, that distinction collapsed in the person of the engineer, and in his work, engineering. (page 28)
Noble points out how engineering curriculum development was guided by the needs of industry and in antagonism to the classical colleges' curricula. I find today that the bulk of engineering education is still focused on the needs of industry, and not that of thinking about when technical solutions to problems are appropriate. In my engineering education, there is very little mention of what it means to be an engineer, and how we must deal with the responsibility and authority that is given to us. And so, I wonder, are we still being educated to serve as fodder for ecologically and humanistically violent corporations? I believe so, and Rebecca believes that corporations thrive on young blood.

But this doesn't necessarily concern engineering. It concerns all of "higher education." And so I ask, What are we being educated for? Are we being educated to be an informed citizenry? A citizenry that can be critical of policies and actions? A citizenry that will speak up when something critical will be said? Or, are we being educated to be consumers, free to speak only when nothing critical has to be said, free to have "jobs" when they are in line with the broader values of government and industry? What do you think your education has meant to you? Has it prepared you to be a leader, to change social norms, to fight injustice, to be peaceable, to be thoughtful, to be caring, to be holistic, to be critical? Or has you education prepared you to be another cog in a vast machine?


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  2. This is AWESOME. Thank you SO much.