Monday, October 4, 2010

Civil Engineering Yes; Tea No

Though it is difficult to demonstrate, even in the era of outcomes assessment, we all strive to provide an education that enhances integrity, civility, and compassion.  For years, many of us have emphasized that increased education makes us better parents, citizens, and voters.  And yet, today’s environment in the United States seems to be moving us in the opposite direction.   We appear to be less enlightened and less civil.  A mosque and community center near ground zero is challenged because the sins of a few radicals have been used to try and tarnish an entire faith. Health care access and reform becomes a political football rather than a mandate. Support for the poor gets tied to preserving tax breaks for the wealthy.  Washington is awash in deficits while states and localities collapse under the weight of decades of bad judgment.  And overall, politicians all too often look to blame rather than reform, to criticize rather than to cure.   Where are these benefits of education when we need them most?

Our economy is not doing well. Though the decline seems to have halted, the recovery lacks the momentum necessary to ignite a robust recovery.  How can this be?  Why aren’t we moving rapidly toward full employment and prosperity?  We are so used to fast response times in everything we do.  Snail mail is becoming a reminder of a world that was, rather than a powerful tool for promoting commerce and communication.  In its place, we find email, text messaging, social media and tweeting.  Regardless of what we now utilize, we are looking for a fast turnaround time.  When I started teaching, faculty had office hours two or three days a week at set times.   If students missed the office hours on a certain day, they would come back a day or two later.  And sometimes, given the delay in meeting together, with some study time, questions found answers and there was no longer the need to utilize office hours.  But office hours are no longer the communications method of choice.  Instead email or some variation has taken its place together with an accompanying expectation of a fast response.

Accessing information often also took substantial time. As an economist, I would often visit the government documents room and access the data there and work on it subsequently at home or in my office.  Now though the government documents room is located in the same building and same floor as my office, I never utilize these paper resources.  Instead I access government documents on line.  Not only is the process easier and faster but there is more information readily available in more formats.  No more paper for me.  I welcome the instant access and use it often.

But instant communication and instant access to information should not be confused with problem solving.  Nor should the questions and problems we need to answer for an exam or a term project be confused with real world problem solving.  There is much that we can access and or resolve instantly, but solutions to complex problems don’t lend themselves to quick solutions.  Turning around a weakened economy takes time. Unfortunately, the prevailing response from our leaders and the public often seems to be an escalation of the rhetoric and a hardening of positions.  At my most optimistic, I believe the generation we are educating now or have recently educated, will not follow this pattern.  Instead I like to believe that this is a holdover from the education that previous generations received.  Time and outcomes assessment will certainly tell if our civil engineering works.   In the meantime, however, given the present political connotations no one should be surprised that tea is no longer my drink of choice.

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