The Education Sham

Everyone these days is an American education critic. Aside from war and taxes, the easiest way to start an argument is to say something positive about education particularly what we call K through 12 in this country, but also about "higher" education.

Others even suggest our whole educational system should be scrapped. In fact, it is being scrapped by the Internet; almost any type of information is on it and it is available to all. The idea of the degree from a university is outmoded noted one writer to the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. Noting that some criticize the U.S. for not graduating enough Ph.D.'s in science and engineering, the writer said "Education [including much of that beyond the 12th grade] in the U.S. is bankrupt." His point is that because of the "ubiquity of print and the Internet, the "priesthood of science" is obsolete.

Furthermore, the writer says business needs " intelligent people who, in spite of their education and not because of it, are thinkers and doers." He is particularly dismissive of advanced degrees in engineering and science. Incidentally, the writer is an engineer. Challenging stuff, and challengers soon showed up in the letters section of the same paper.

Disagreeing strongly with the engineer was an Sc.D from MIT who claimed, "in graduate school I learned the techniques for designing and implementing an experimental research project, techniques that I have used to this day." This writer said the bad guy is often industry itself that takes graduates in science and engineering. When "the profit motive, politics, etc., take over... there is little chance for independent thinking, which is critical to maintain America's technical leadership."

So what do we have here? One side says the whole education establishment was designed in Oz and that the degree, especially the graduate degree, is as fake as the one the Wizard gives to the Tin Man. The other says the profit motive is what spoils perfectly good and creative scientists and engineers.

Meanwhile, the manufacturing sector of the country claims we are tens of thousands short annually when it comes to turning out manufacturing engineers. In addition, they say, the people they hire right out of high school, and often, even college graduates, cannot write a clear sentence or handle basic arithmetic.

The folks who see formal education as a kind of hustle from Oz note that some of the most famous and successful people in history have never gone to college or had little formal education. Some like Bill Gates, dropped out to pursue a vision, in his case eventually becoming the richest man in the world.

The folks who claim it's all wasted because industry pollutes the graduates' pure creativity (properly trained in the pure academic environment) with ideas about profit, productivity and competition suggest a different version of Oz where we keep the whole educational system free of nasty free enterprise ideas.

Keep in mind, these guys are talking about engineering and scientific colleges and universities. These are the schools industry relies on most for its future technical strengths. Seems to me both writers agree industry must have a steady flow of top-quality engineering and technical minds to stay competitive in the global economy. Their disagreement is a matter of how best to keep individual talent creative and productive.

Meanwhile, the secondary education establishment seems stuck in an impossible dilemma. Poverty, missing parents, unemployment and shrinking finances suggest hundreds of thousands of American young people will never get to either version of Oz. It's a shame and a great burden for the whole country, the industrial community included.

Yes, everyone these days is a critic of American education, at all levels. Yet, what are the solutions? What can industry do to remedy the appalling situation in our big city schools? What can industry do to remedy the situations discussed by our two writers? Are there any solutions at all?

If you have any thoughts about the education debates and situations, send them to me. Maybe we can find a way to not only keep engineering graduates creative but can help people just beginning in early grades to learn that self esteem based upon developing new skills is best of all.

George Weimer

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