Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Degree Granting Institution Does Not a University Make

Today's column:

Welcome to trade school. Yes, I know, the legal name of this fine institution is Michigan Technological University. Yet much like football is a game which seldom requires that feet touch the ball, continuing to call Michigan Tech a University is a result of semiotic inertia--nothing more. This is not, in and of itself, problematic; but much like an exchange student from across the pond would need to gain familiarity with American football in order to avoid both embarrassment and confusion, so it behooves a new Tech student to understand what awaits him during the next several years.

A Tech student will receive extensive instruction within his field of discipline. By the time he graduates, a mechanical engineering student will have mechanical engineering coming out of his ears; a computer science student will be able to program in his sleep. Quality of instruction varies by department, and according to particular professors, but in general Tech produces students who are able to work in the fields for which they have assiduously prepared. Moreover, while Tech is not M.I.T or Cal Tech, or even in the same league thereof, it is not bereft of a certain, if largely regional, prestige. Thus a student should be able to become employed, doing something which he enjoys—or so one would hope—at a higher rate of pay than he would be able to command without his degree.

But there are things which a Tech education will not give. For instance, a Tech student will not receive a liberal arts education. For all of the depth that one will master in one's field of choice, there is not a corresponding breadth concerning all of the subjects which one might expect to be traditionally covered at a University. A student will probably not improve his ability to write substantially, unless he undertakes to go at it in his own free time. He will read few books concerning topics unrelated to engineering, though he will gain a fair amount of knowledge about math and physics, especially insofar as it allows for applications of engineering. But his heart will probably not be moved by Virgil or Dante, Homer or Shakespeare; his thoughts will not soar with Dostoevsky or Dickens, or even with Waugh or Joyce; knowledge of history will be as lacking as that of the arts—unless, of course, he earnestly seeks to educate himself on such matters. And his education will be the poorer for it.

Perhaps such an education would not be desired by such a student. As Fred Reed once remarked, “An engineer forced to read Blake is merely an annoyed engineer.” But Fred is a cantankerous contrarian, and given his knowledge of engineering, while ostensibly ephemeral, his example suggests that one may be able to learn about engineering and enjoy reading poetry.

The administration would suggest that it's best that Tech doesn't try too hard to be anything other than a fairly expensive trade school. But an education that deals only with circuits and concrete is, at best, half complete. You won't find the answers to life's probing questions in General Chemistry.

Anyway, good luck at trade school. It's really not that bad of a place. Make sure to stop by the library.


Graeme said...

I totally go to a tech school

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Which one, if you don't mind me asking? Also, has your experience been similar to mind insofar as an astounding portion of the students seem to care little, or nothing, for the arts?

Anonymous said...

Your point is well-taken. However, you might point out that graduates from liberal arts institutions are at least as ignorant of the sciences in which Michigan Tech graduates excel as are the Michigan Tech graduates of the softer subjects.
I think the general ignorance of history, literature, and grammar are appalling, but my experience has been that this ignorance is at least as prevalent in the liberal arts graduate as in the technical graduate. For support of this assertion, watch a TV news program, any congressional activity, or talk to a high schol teacher.
Remember also that much of the national wealth that allows you to pontificate on the spiritual virtues of being a liberal arts major is created by those Michigan Tech cretins.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

A valid point, and I did not wish to portray Tech students as, nor suggest that they were, cretins. On the whole, they are not, though they are often a bit shallow, and tend toward the apathetic.

My sincerest wish is simply for all students, but especially my peers, to learn from our glorious past. I think it a reasonable wish.