Monday, November 21, 2011

Destroying the Engineering Imagination

If our supply of future engineers dries up, nobody will be doing any kind of engineering, ethical or otherwise. So I think it is appropriate for me to address issues relating to engineering education from time to time, including those factors in the upbringing of young people that don’t fit into K-12 institutional studies. For example, as a parent, what could you do to encourage your children to be engineers? Or (what might be just as informative as a bad example), what could you do to keep them away from engineering?

Anthony Esolen has taken the latter approach. A professor of English literature at Rhode Island’s Providence College, he has written a book called Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. Of course, he is advocating no such thing, but by firmly planting his tongue in his cheek, he indirectly advises parents about what sorts of things will foster and encourage a child’s imagination. He does this through a heavily ironic tone in which current child-rearing practices, systems of public education, and large swathes of the U. S. economy come in for severe criticism.

The part of the book that speaks most directly to the rearing (or discouragement) of future engineers is his Method 3, “Keep Children Away from Machines and Machinists.” With examples drawn from biographies (Edison, naturalist Louis Agassiz, amateur astronomer Charles Messier), older nonfiction books for children (e. g. the electronic hobbyist book series written by the redoubtable Alfred P. Morgan from the 1930s through the 1960s), and fiction (Swiss Family Robinson, the Wallace and Gromit animated films), Esolen shows the vivid contrast between the untrammeled freedom children in past generations had to watch craftsmen at work, read about fascinating machines and the ingenious self-reliant inventors who made them, and play at craftsmanship and invention themselves; and today’s typical childhood, which by contrast is a vast, dreary landscape of scheduled “activities,” indoctrination masquerading as education, and spare time spent in front of computers and video games, indoors, away from anything real that could conceivably be called truly adventurous.

Esolen is not bound by any desire to appear scientific, or particularly even-handed. Accordingly, he paints his picture in vivid, stark colors, leaving the impression that nothing much good has occurred in child-rearing, education, or the economy since about 1970. Mixed in with the more objective material are autobiographical sections in which Esolen recounts the hardscrabble environment of the Pennsylvania coal town where he grew up. So some of the exaggerated contrast between the dismal present and the golden-tinged past can be attributed to insufficiently compensated nostalgia, in my opinion.

This does not detract from the highly useful advice Esolen gives in his backhanded fashion about fostering what I would term the engineering imagination. The best engineers have well-developed imaginations that they use to create new ideas and products in their heads, well before anything exists even on paper, in a computer, or in reality. What Esolen has done is to show us ways that this kind of imagination takes root and grows in children’s minds, and what kinds of experiences and relationships can encourage it.

Structure and discipline are two important ingredients. The parents who would discourage the growth of an engineering imagination should keep their children away from maps, blueprints, and complicated games and stories. Also, people who do intricate skilled tasks with their hands—artists, hunters and fishermen, furniture makers, weavers—should be avoided. In the name of safety, keep children from tinkering with cars, taking things apart, playing with chemicals or fireworks, and using anything in any manner for which it was not intended. Esolen winds up his chapter with a wonderful list that I cannot resist reproducing in part here: “No soldering kits, no ham radios, no transformers, no catapults. No big drills, no routers, no table saws, no axes. . . . No vacuum tubes, no motherboards, no Bunsen burners, no sledges. . . . No gears, no sprockets, no flywheels, no springs, no spools. No trades, no gear, no tackle, and no trim.”

The last sentence is a reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty,” the one that begins, “Glory be to God for dappled things,” and praises the beauty of “áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.” Esolen writes from a deeply Christian viewpoint, although most of what he says can be taken seriously by believer and unbeliever alike. However, Christianity furnishes a philosophical framework that gives purpose and meaning to life, and counters the attitude behind sayings like, “Life sucks, and then you die.”

Imagination is closely related to the Christian virtue of hope. We cannot hope for what we cannot imagine, and if our imaginations are stunted and withered, hope suffers as well. At their best, engineers imagine a better future for people and then work to bring it into reality. Anthony Esolen has shown us how to stifle imagination, and therefore hope. But by taking the opposite of his advice, as he intends, we can foster a better future for ourselves and our children.

Sources: Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, by Anthony Esolen, was published in 2010 by ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware.

1 comment:

  1. I feel that too often people don't let children solve problems at a young age. Parents feed their children the solution without letting them come up with solutions themselves. When my children (4 and 6) ask me questions I try to ask them why they think it is that way. Sometimes they come up with the correct answer themselves, but if not I then supply the answer to the best of my knowledge. Hopefully it helps them develop an imagination to solve questions with the knowledge they develop as they grow older.