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Friday, April 20, 2012

Our Throw Away Society

"Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of Liberty.” —" Thomas Jefferson

Last night I attended a dinner in honor of the retirement of two of my former partners and colleagues from the Land Surveying and Civil Engineering firm where I was once one of the co-owners before I hung up my spikes five years ago. It was a great event and I was able to spend some time with many of former partners still doing battle with the dragon of today’s stagnant economy. I was shocked to hear of the staff reductions that had been made over the past four years in order to keep this sixty year old business alive. As Thomas Paine stated during the Revolutionary War; “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

During the dinner I sat next to a former partner and colleague who is still fighting the good fight in the Sacramento office. We talked of many things. We reminisced on past days and how business is going today. When I asked him if he was still as involved in supporting one of our state universities with their surveying program he informed me that the program was in danger dur to the soon to be departure of the professor who had run the program for the past twenty years and that the university was searching for an endowment to keep the program alive. They not only needed the money, they also needed students. It seems as though today high school students entering college are more interested in studying Italian Renaissance Arts, psychology or Women’s studies than the more demanding disciplines of engineering.

This dilemma is no doubt in part due to the lack of recruiting at the high school level and the dwindling number of students prepared in math and science to enter engineering and scientific courses of study. Conversely there is a lack of qualified instructors to teach such classes. Obviously if we have a dwindling cadre of students we will eventually have a deficiency in those who can recruit and teach the students.

On my drive home I began thinking about this two-fold problem facing the nation today. Since it was a drive of some 100 miles to my home I came up with several ideas that I believe would alleviate this condition.

First of all we need qualified instructors who can not only teach the fundamentals of the engineering disciplines, but who can make the learning exciting and fruitful. There are thousands of retired engineering professionals who have years of practical experience in managing and building projects of all types. They also have experience in running business, hiring and mentoring people, serving clients, and making a profit. These things also need to be taught to students in preparation for a career in engineering.

The problem is that these folks do not have the academic union card of a PhD. The academic community jealously protects its profession by requiring450px-Socrates_Louvre an instructor to have one of these union cards no matter how knowledge or experience a person with fifty years of experience he or she may have. This is known as academic elitism. In the Socratic Method of teaching the job of any instructor is to assist the student if learning and discovering on his own, not on indoctrination. It is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, thus strengthening the inquirer's own point.

You cannot convince me that a thirty-year old person with a PhD who has done all of his or hers required book learning, written papers and convinced a panel of academics that he or she is deserving of a PhD is more qualified to teach students in the engineering discipline than a person with a successful career of managing and building projects, running a business, serving clients and making money. This is how it was many years ago before the academic mafia of elites began to take over our schools.

This malady is also prevalent in other professions. My brother is a practicing attorney who owns a law firm. He tells me a similar tale about our law schools. They have professors of law who have never tried a case or entered a court room except as an observer. On the other hand there are many retired attorneys and judges with thousands of years of experience who could share this with the students, thus better preparing them for a career in the law.

Before I continue let me state that I am not advocating eliminating all professors and teachers in favor of retirees. What I am advocating, however, is the use of these retired professional as adjunct lecturers for the recruiting and teaching of students. They can make their professions come alive and exciting for the students and potential students. I also do not wish to impugn the hard work and study that goes into obtaining a PhD or its value. I do, however, believe that the purpose of a PhD is to allow the holder to go out into the world and do great things, not look for a place at the table of the elites in the ivory tower of academia where they can sit in the faculty lounge and exchange similar points of view with one another.

Let me tell a personal tale. When I want to high school many years ago I was not a good student at math. In fact I failed algebra in my freshman year. I no doubt did this due to my lack of interest and my inability to see any practical use of the subject. Obviously my parents did not take kindly to this. In my sophomore I eschewed any math courses for classes in science and industrial arts. In between my sophomore and junior years I got a summer job as a surveyor’s assistant. This opened my eyes to the potential of a great career where I would not have to work in the steel mills of my home town or in the building trades. I realized I would need the advanced math if I wanted to pursue a career in surveying or civil engineering. My eyes were opened because I was working in the field under the supervision of professionals who were showing me the possibilities.

In my junior year I once again challenged the algebra. This time I had a young teacher, just out of the army, who was no nonsense teacher who knew his subject. I excelled and finished with an A. In my senior year I took plane geometry and saw the relevance of this subject in my chosen career. Once again I did well finishing with another A. In the meantime I kept working as a surveyor’s assistant during summer vacation, other holiday periods, and Saturdays. Yes we worked Saturdays in those days. The mentorship of my supervisors was taking hold.

I realized that if I wished to continue down this path I would need more advanced math like trigonometry, the back bone of surveying, and spherical geometry. After graduation I went to work full time for the surveying and engineering firm that had given me the opportunity as a high school student. I also need to go to night school for the advanced math.

I enrolled in a class in trigonometry and was very fortunate to study under one of the most brilliant math teachers I have ever met. She was not an academic, but an instructor doing this because she needed a few extra dollars and het love of teaching math. She had a PhD in math, but more so she was a mathematician at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory — a contributor to the space program in Cleveland, Ohio. Like Jaime Escalante in the film Stand and Deliver who taught AP Calculus at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, she made math come alive. For every trigonometric function she would take us back to Pythagoras and bring us forward to how the function was developed. Boy did the lights go one for me. Once again I completed the class with an A and she told me I should pursue a career in mathematics —this for a fellow who failed algebra in freshman year in high school. I was flattered, but I still wanted a career in civil engineering and surveying. 55 years later after many night school classes, a ten-year stint as a highway engineer for the California Division of Highways (CALTRANS), ten years of owning my own civil engineering and surveying business, and 23 years of being a part owner of another civil engineering and surveying firm that employed 850 persons at the end of my career I retired after a long and successful career.

I share this tale not to boast, but to illustrate the value of mentorship (the Socratic Method of teaching), competent and inspiring teachers, and being motivated by practical examples of what could be achieved.

My tale in in no way is unique. Many other successful professionals in all careers have gone this route. They achieved great heights, not because they were smarter or more fortunate that others but because they had the advantage of the mentorship and instruction from experienced professionals who could motivate them and impart their practical knowledge upon them. Learning is achieved through motivation. Just think back on all of the teachers you have had in your life and identify the ones who motivated you the most.

In today’s society we are throwing away the knowledge and experience of our successful elders. In bygone days it was these elders who were looked to for their knowledge and understanding of the world. What better teacher could a business major have than a successful businessman who has spent years serving the public? Or an engineering major an engineer who has built bridges, highways and other civil structures or a student of the law a lawyer who has tried both criminal and civil cases or served as a judge.

This not only pertains to our universities, but it relates to our high schools where it may have even greater value. Wouldn’t an aerospace engineer add more value for the students than a math teacher who also coaches the basketball team? But we have a monopolistic government school system that is captive to the teachers unions that vigorously protects their turf. Yes, I understand that a measure of vetting would be needed to retain the services of these retired experts, but our current spate of teacher scandals points out that those union teachers have their problems with morality. Also there would be considerable savings by using these retired professionals. They would not need gold-plated pension or health care plans.

As a society where retired professionals are living longer, healthier lives we are missing a great opportunity to take advantage of their knowledge and experience. I once had a conversation with a very successful client who told me he looked upon gray hair as a positive, not a deterrent to procuring the services of a consultant. If this philosophy works in the real world why can’t it work in the halls of academia?

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