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The Country Where Merit is Run Down, Part II: The STEM Curriculum Dilemma

In the March/April 2013 issue of GeoStrata, the official publication of the Geo-Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the following was noted in its review of geotechnical (soil mechanics and foundations) education:

The national trend of falling credit requirements for the attainment of a bachelor’s degree was cited by many as a challenge facing geotechnical engineering education. On average, in 1920, 151 credit hours were required to obtain a BSCE or equivalent, compared with 130 credit hours today. This downward trend, coupled with greater emphasis being placed upon teaching professional or “soft” skills, such as the ability to work on teams and communicate orally at the undergraduate level, has placed tremendous pressure on civil engineering departments to cut credits and technical content. The result of these trends is that most students have only one required undergraduate course in soil mechanics, and geology and foundation design are often electives.

This is an issue that doesn’t get a great deal of publicity, but it’s one that, with current trends, could adversely affect the quality of undergraduate engineers in the U.S.  And it’s not unique to civil or geotechnical engineering either.

Let’s start with the credit hours limitation, which is primarily an issue with state universities (and most engineering schools are state schools).  Most states give varying levels of subsidy to their universities, and the general trend of that share is declining.  Usually the level of subsidy is based upon the number of credit hours being pursued at any given time.  One way of limiting that subsidy is to limit the number of credit hours a student needs to get an undergraduate degree, and that limit is usually around 120.  (A wrinkle on that solution is to allow students to take more courses but pay the out-of-state rate for them, but that gets very expensive very quickly).

Most engineering schools are clever enough to work with that limitation per se.  But when they organise their curricula, they run into another roadblock to success: the upward creeping “GenEd” (General Education) requirements.  As the quotation above noted, the virtue of these is touted as inculcating “to work on teams and communicate orally”, but this is also touted based on the need for “well-rounded” undergraduates, a phrase that’s haunted this blog before.  Engineering colleges periodically go to the mat and oppose further expansion of GenEd requirements to keep their own space in the curriculum; it’s an ongoing issue.

To look at this from another perspective, consider the saga of the Brit (I can still say that, the SNP hasn’t succeeded just yet) David Clements and his saga of obtaining a Professional Engineering license in the U.S..  One impediment in his quest was the following, from the State of Florida:

So my evaluation essentially noted that I had more than enough hours is mathematics and engineering, but that I was slightly deficient in basic science (this is the stuff we learnt in secondary school, which doesn’t count in your accreditation) and deficient in humanities and social sciences. Apparently, history really is an important aspect of becoming an engineer!

An aside: he ends up getting his license in Texas.  About this he says the following:

For a state that most of us might see as relatively archaic, they’re actually quite forward-thinking thinking when it comes to their board of Professional Engineers.

The reason for their progressive thinking is simple: the oil industry, which has been a multi-national affair from the start, as I noted here.

But I digress…a reasonable question is this: why is it that other parts of the world (and the UK isn’t alone in this regard) don’t see humanities at the undergraduate level as important for engineers (and presumably others in the hard sciences) as we do?  Anyone who has contact with graduate engineering students in the U.S. who come from other places (and that’s about half of them) and were educated there know that they have high technical competency, which is the point of undergraduate engineering education.  Their biggest obstacle is their English proficiency, which widely varies.  So why are we so obsessed with larding their curriculum with the arts and social sciences the way we are, especially with the emphasis on STEM we have today?

The answer to that question isn’t simple but it isn’t very encouraging either.

The single biggest problem–and Clements unintentionally touches on it–is that much of our university curricula are designed to make up for the deficiencies of our primary and secondary education system.  The ability to read and write effectively, to work in teams (if that’s a big deal, there are situations where it is not) and to learn about the world and culture around them, are things that should be done deals by the time students walk for their high school diploma.  That’s especially true since even public schools have a “college prep” track.  But that’s not happening, not to the extent it needs to.

Part of the problem, of course, is the trade unionisation of our teachers, which took place at the beginning of the last century, complete with sequestration of their higher education system.  But another part of the problem is the way public schools in the U.S. are governed.  If you’ve ever read American prose from the nineteenth century, it’s tough going.  It’s even tougher when one considers that most of the writers never made it to university.  As time has gone on and the country prospered, I think that complacency has set in with many of the long-time residents who inhabit the school boards.  They just don’t see the value of a rigourous education at the (especially) secondary level, which itself is a way to run down merit.  Americans have never been ones to define their culture by their literature and arts, so the forces that make Europeans pull their socks up and stand straight, so to speak, are very weak here.  Unfortunately what we have now is a vast throng of functional illiterates, and the universities, who have sold the country on the idea that college is essential, struggle to bring people up to speed when it’s too late to do it right.

With engineering schools deficiencies in incoming reading and writing skills are compounded by deficiencies in math skills.  Coupled with the limited curriculum space and you have the makings of a serious problem.

But there’s another factor at work here.  For all the lip service people give to STEM these days, we’re not as scientifically minded society as we’d like to think we are.  The left’s endless bawling over climate change and evolution come to mind, but there are plenty of other Luddite causes out there: anti-vaxxers, nuclear power fear-mongers (which make doing anything about climate change all that much harder), GMO fanatics, religionist environmentalists, and so on.  One of the things the “New Atheists” promised us was the abolition of all else but science.  I don’t think they’ve done a very good job of achieving that goal, but I think that, in the heart of hearts of the non-scientific community in and out of academia, there’s a fear that smart STEM people really could fix much of what they tell us is unfixable, or see things a different way and come up with a different solution (and turn some sacred cows into hamburger in the bargain).  So they try to water down the curriculum to take the edge off the people who doggedly pursue an engineering education (and, trust me, it takes persistence to get through it).

The result is yet another levelling of a group of achievers.  Throw in the fact that many of those achievers are Asians, and you have the making of yet another way in which merit is run down in these United States.

It’s tempting to round out this piece by calling for the restoration of STEM courses to STEM curricula, but as impervious as our political and bureaucratic system is to common sense, it’s probably not very useful.


6 Replies to “The Country Where Merit is Run Down, Part II: The STEM Curriculum Dilemma”

  1. >Why is it that other parts of the world (and the UK isn’t alone in this regard) don’t see humanities at the undergraduate level as important for engineers (and presumably others in the hard sciences) as we do?

    Part of the reason is that college in the UK is a 3 year, heavily state sponsored affair (although increasingly less so), so there’s less time and money for the humanities and social sciences in STEM degrees than in the US. Concomitantly, UK humanities and social science students have less time and money for STEM than in the US. UK GDP per capital is about 83% of US GDP, so maybe the Brits can’t afford as much breadth in their training as we can especially in a more highly regulated state financed system. Or maybe, they’ve erred in applying a positivist, narrow approach to education given all the recent turmoil in British higher ed. and the huge financial and cultural penalty they pay year after year for being the worst linguists in Europe.

    I don’t know what the FL accreditation system for engineers is or should be or Dave Clement’s skills, but an Englishman who took all STEM A-levels, which is I believe common for engineers, would have stopped taking non-STEM classes in Year 11. That’s our equivalent of 10th grade. For Florida to require engineers to have more than a tenth grade education in the humanities and social sciences doesn’t strike me as “running down merit” unless “merit” is defined to exclude the social and humanistic aspects of engineering and education.

    That’s not to say that licensing for foreign professionals isn’t set up to protect American degrees. But that’s partly a political question about immigration.

    These kinds of political, economic, and philosophical issues are exactly the sort of non-engineering topics that directly effect engineers and which they and society might profit by studying.

    A broader, more humanistic question might be: what sort of non-engineering education should engineers have? My guess is that engineers should be able to understand the political, historical, and cultural dimensions of their work in society and to explain their thoughts clearly. Furthermore, they should have some intermediate level depth in critique via other disciplines. I took two engineering classes in college, plus multi-variable calculus for engineers, and my impression was that classes in the e-quad were great at making one absorb a powerful framework in a hurry. But there was never really enough time or interest to analyze the theoretical foundations of that framework or connect it to other questions or disciplines. It was all very given this problem or scenario how do you get to this already pretty well defined solution. That’s super useful in situations with already well defined questions, but less helpful in more uncertain or ambitious cases where the art of asking the right questions comes into play. For example, I learned a bunch of useful techniques in engineering statistics, but it was only in the philosophy department where I saw how different various interpretations of probability are and how those differences stem from various starting assumptions. Philosophers also gave me a taste of how probability and logic intertwine and how logic and natural languages interrelate too. My senior year I took a philosophy of physics class that dealt with all the interpretative problems in quantum mechanics that physicists seem to ignore. We didn’t solve anything, but there was space to read Einstein’s “philosophy” papers, clarify conceptual ambiguities, and imagine possibilities. Granted that was a high-level, STEM-esque humanities class, but it required useful interpretive and theoretical ways of thinking than are less emphasized in engineering or taught in secondary school. So long as we’re calling for better higher school humanities classes, I’d like to call for better college humanities classes too.

    I’m being harsher than I intend here, but that’s because I’m so frustrated with how the oligarchy of this country and Britain has convinced so many people to devalue the humanities. Part of the problem is a widespread Silicon Valley gnosticism that treats people as material to be remade into supermen. Another part is greed; a more democratically empowered, politically aware populace would demand and get far greater infrastructure spending. Not only would the lower and middle-class be bolstered, but productivity would increase too. Who would benefit? Citizens and businesses that rely on roads, airports, etc, i.e. everyone, but especially the engineers hired to build everything!

    So let me be incredibly blunt here: I’ve enjoyed these conversations very much (although I really need to sign off to bolster my own productivity), but I fear that you are engaged in some horribly ironic false consciousness. College English professors are not your enemy. The enemy of engineers is people like the Koch brothers who short our nation of trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending by relying on political ignorance, apathy, and education narrowly defined by a tilted labor market. My fear is certainly not that engineers will come up with useful stuff. My fear is that engineers will be duped into serving questionable political and economic agendas. This duping will really be a combination of intellectual pride, financial self-interest, and a mechanistic, utopian view of mankind/ignorance of humanistic issues like political economy and the impact of inventions on society more broadly. Obvious examples include: NSA surveillance, big data profiling, widespread advertising surveillance, wholesale copyright violation à la Napster, financial risk “engineering” à la AIG, rent seeking by high-frequency traders, human genomic engineering in China, bio weapons engineering in Russia. Not to mention the challenges of inequality created by new network platforms and automation and of climate change by internal combustion and power plants. Obviously, engineers aren’t wholly responsible for the ills of their creations, but it’s not hard to imagine that the guys at, say Kronos, could stand to spend a little more time learning to see things from other people’s perspectives or thinking about privacy:


    1. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “horribly ironic false consciousness” but I’ll try to address some of your points.

      I think that, in some engineering disciplines at least, the engineers are more aware of the abusive use of the technology they develop than many others. The problem is that, by and large, they are not in a position to influence the outcome of the process short of whistleblowing (an increasingly ineffective tactic) and the concomitant loss of job.

      As far as the humanities are concerned, I’ve had the debate of humanities “vs.” STEM before. A large part of the problem is that the humanities have, through post-modern deconstructionism and identity politics, devalued themselves to the point where their net benefit is highly questionable. This is a debate that has gone on for a long time within the humanities, but I’m afraid that this will persist long after the last superannuated hippie in the English Department starts drawing on his/her TIAA/CREF account. I know I have found that I have had to relearn much about the humanities in the years since I was stuck with the hippies that weren’t superannuated. (I did enjoy my Logic course in college from the Philosophy Department, although I had to endure this.

      I actually drive my Civil Engineering students crazy with ambiguous situations, which appear often in the discipline I teach (geotechnical engineering).

      Side note: one group of people who I had little contact with in my humanities education were the medievals, who inspired Cantor in this way. I had to learn about Aquinas and Maimonides on my own.

      As far as the Koch brothers are concerned, if the corporate left applied the same gusto to trashing them as they did to RFRA legislation in Indiana, they would have to sell their homes in Palm Beach. But I’m not looking to see that in the Shiny Sheet any time soon.


  2. Right, a saving grace in all of this is that many engineers are smart, curious people with the basic skills to pick up a lot of humanistic learning on their own.

    And, speaking of which, didn’t you write a novel? I haven’t read it, but mightn’t it have helped/been fun to have spent some time at an impressionable age reading well regarded novels and discussing them with others? I took about 8 or so literature classes in college, and postmodernism and identity politics never really came up directly in any of them. Granted some of those were in the classics department and as a philosophy major with a sideline in economics, I never had to touch literary theory. Classes were still anchored by closely reading authors like Homer and Shakespeare and then interpreting them together and across wide contexts. There was “freedom within the discipline”

    and a little humility

    that’s hard to recreate as an autodidact.

    In philosophy the department was very analytic, and I came across postmodernism only in a semi-required class on Nietzsche that I hated but which did deal with historically significant material. Zero identity politics in class (outside another story). And the net benefit was huge in terms of grabbing with high-level, important arguments and teaching rigorous thought. Maybe, that’s something one has to experience directly to feel the benefit in one’s bones, but trust me at least that a good philosophy class is every bit as hard and transformative as anything I’ve seen in engineering, economics, or biology. The same goes for humanities research where, for example, Peter Brown transformed “the Dark Ages” into “Late Antiquity” through a high level, original synthesis and rethinking of the rise of Christianity, the creation of Western Europe, the fall of the Roman Empire, and rise of Islam. That sounds like label switching from afar, perhaps, but connecting the shift from Roman largess to Christian charity through Constantine’s imperial taxation reforms is pretty original stuff that partly explains the rise of monasteries and a new understanding of the Church’s role as corporate shepherd.

    And, yes, the corporate left is inconsistent. But I’m not the corporate left. I’m a guy who read the link at the bottom of this page to the article in _First Things_ on the power elite and the RFRA (by a humanist I used to know at Princeton!) and agreed with much of it. That’s where I came across the links above.

    So forget the Koch brothers for a second. Take another member of the “power elite,” Sheldon Adelson. Here’s a man of our time–21st century capitalism/neoliberalism–an entrepreneur who’s made a fortune through his vision and courage but in casinos particularly in Macau with the aid of (criminal) triads. And he’s used this fortune to lobby for libertarianism that primarily benefits the wealthy while undercutting traditional values. All this is legal, and some is commendable, but the one time I went to Vegas I felt sad and a little threatened by the whole spectacle. Not just because of the vice, which I as a Christian think does no one well long-term, but also because the spectacle seemed so shallow, so crass to me. I have a friend who used to go to Vegas whenever he could right out of college, but after about the sixth time he got sick of it and a little disgusted. He’s not a churchgoing man, but he was a big reader and traveler in college (now he has less time), and I’m sure he could “see through” Vegas more easily than a lot of other people. That’s just one person, but if you don’t think that everyone, their relationships, and values should be “recoded” in terms of market value, then the humanities are one of the few remaining stores of meaning (or possible meaning) along with the Church. Like the Church, they don’t necessarily determine one’s party affiliation, but when done well they cut across party lines to free the mind.

    And yes, I’m sorry I accused you of false consciousness. I get so passionate about the beauty of the humanities, but I’ll stop ranting and just say come and see.


    1. You’ve brought up many interesting issues.

      You were blessed in your literature curriculum. It would be interesting to see what’s going on now. I think it’s fair now to say that, to use Alan Bloom’s expression, the American mind is officially closed, with the erosion of free speech on campuses, which IMHO is highly corporatist and indicative of a generation that, under all of the soaring rhetoric, is running scared. A more rigourous humanities program would go a long way to preventing this, but as Bloom observed many years ago there were cultural and structural issues eroding this, and have been for a long time.

      For my part my decision to become an engineer came late in prep school, so until then my studies leaned towards the humanities. (I had a student last year with a similar experience, a PK). In addition to the interpretation problem, one thing that soured me on my English studies was American literature, which I almost think is an oxymoron. (Slight exaggeration, but…) My French studies have been another matter altogether; they were the window into a new world, although I had to find out along the way that the language of Camus and Zola was also the language of Pascal and Bossuet.

      Along those lines, since you mention Peter Brown, the core problem with Late Roman history is that the Anglophone world’s view of this is too skewed by Gibbon. A more dispassionate view of things is found in Ferdinand Lot and Peter Salway, although Salway’s concentration is on Roman Britain, which ended itself through some disastrous miscalculations.

      Another problem is the lack of studies outside of the West, or more exactly the really great stuff outside of the West. Take China for example. Sun Tzu is good but a little overrated; the canon should include works such as the San Guo, Dream of Red Mansions, The Scholars (that may be a stretch, but I like it) and the explosion of literature in the last century, including Lu Xun and Mao Dun. Unfortunately non-Western literature in some cases gets hijacked for purposes of identity politics, but if China is the coming power, we need to understand it.

      But perhaps we should consider some of the other arts and social sciences. Music would top my list; I married a music teacher and “support the arts”. And since we’ve been discussing history…I always found American history to be a flat business: one form of government for 200+ years, only 500 years to cover. We need more emphasis on world history. But what we really need is a sane lens to look through it all. If we can recover that, the crisis the humanities face wouldn’t be as serious as it is.


  3. Sorry for the slow reply. I was on vacation for a week and enjoyed the break from the internet so much that I took some needed weeks offline. So I just saw your response. And it’s really the only thing for which I’m glad to have forsaken my analog purity. There are so many deadening political debates full of virtual outrage that don’t seem to have advanced while I was away. On the other hand, it’s heartening to see your words on my computer pointing beyond themselves to a living tradition. And maybe to find a little common ground somewhere.

    Any way, yes, I completely with you about the importance of French, Chinese, and world history, cultural studies, history, etc. American history lacks European’s power, depth, and flair, but every now and then I notice someone like Kevin Kruse who comes along and brings huge social transformations into the present.

    Yeah, non-American lit is much bigger and richer than what we’ve put together in our short time, but come on! Twain, Melville, Cather, Eliot, Faulkner, we’ve got some good stuff.

    Good follow post on part III of this series. I actually met an Asian kid going to Harvard next year who said he figured out in 10th grade how much better he’d have to be because of his race.


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