One of our big educational problems today has to be seen as the undeniable success of our engineering programs. But this requires explanation.
The first aspect of this is that it is not engineering’s fault. We have a problem, but it is not the problem of the engineers. If a bunch of people rush over to the starboard rail of a boat, the whole boat has a problem, and not just the starboard rail. It might be convenient to blame the starboard rail, but that is all it is — convenient.
Here is the problem in a nutshell. When it comes to higher education, what do we do with our best and brightest? Overwhelmingly, Christian parents of high-achieving kids seek out some kind of technocratic program of study. They seek out the sciences and engineering. This is in part because Americans in general are pragmatic space shuttle builders, but there is an addition attraction here for Christians. What might it be?
We have to begin by comparing contemporary engineering to the comtemporary humanities. Christians love the truth, and when you undertake a course of study in engineering, most of what you learn is true. The bridges have to stand, and the airplanes have to fly. The software needs to run. In most liberal arts programs, most of what you learn is false, with some of it being false and stupid. So there’s that.
In the old days, when the study of the liberal arts was Christian, there was a fixed standard that enabled you to navigate them. There is no problem with reading and studying error so long as you have a means of identifying it. You are an intelligent Christian participant in what Adler called the great conversation. The fact that the conversation extended over centuries does not mean that it turns out we are all saying the same thing. You need to know what Plato said in order to take issue. But when you are immersed in this world and all the standards of measurement look like a slide rule in a Salvador Dali painting, the only possible result is a nihilistic relativism. That is the first thing that has happened to us.
Secondly, engineering is hard. It is a demanding course of study. It requires sacrifice from those undertaking it. Intelligent and motivated students love a challenge, and they hate courses of study that are a waste of everybody’s time. In competition with this, in many situations the natural temptation is to do the very thing that will dig your hole deeper. Make it easier to get in. Make it more colorful and appealing. Sure, but don’t be surprised if the best and brightest continue to avoid your liberal arts “let’s stack colored blocks” program.
And third, engineering is distinctively masculine. True, at times it can be geeky masculine, but it is still recognizably a masculine pursuit. Masculinity loves a challenge, and intelligence loves a challenge. In its way, the engineering programs have made an effective appeal to men, in a way that the liberal arts programs have not bothered to do.
In support of this overall point, take the example of poetry. The fact that men don’t pursue poetry anymore is not the men’s fault. Poetry went soft and floaty, and Wordsworth didn’t help with his host of golden daffodils. If there has been a parting of the ways between two who were previously close, it is always reasonable to ask which one left.
If you survey the ranks of those engaged in the cultural leadership of our nation, you will be astonished at the inverse relationship of genius and talent. Somebody is flattering somebody. Asinus asinum fricat.
There was a time when the ministry of the Word attracted high talent. Now it attracts those who want an indoor job with no heavy lifting. There was a time when the humanities were a demanding course of study (which they still frequently are at the graduate level). But now relativism has rotted out the core curriculum in a way that relativism has not rotted out mechanical engineering.
And even though it is de rigueur to lament the fact that football teams tend to get way more funding than, say, your average English department, it must also be admitted that we actually have ways of telling if a football program is succeeding — unlike English departments. Standards are inescapable, and in a world dominated by engineers, the word-smithers cannot spend all their time playing tennis with the net down. And the fact that somebody picked up on the Frost allusion does not mean that lots of people will start clamoring to get a liberal arts degree.
The need of the hour is for Christians who are committed to the study of the liberal arts in higher education to state their case, and to build their programs. The difficulties that attend this activity are many, but we need to not blame those who are doing a better job than we have done. They have built programs that teach truth, expect a lot of hard work, and expect a lot of it from men. It’s a free country. We could try doing the same thing — which is exactly what we are attempting to undertake here at NSA.