Saturday, May 31, 2008

California Supreme Court Damages Future of Engineering

I'm going to go out on a limb here. But I'm sure that the limb's pretty solid.

On May 15, the California Supreme Court struck down a ban on same-sex marriages that the state has had in place for some time. I'm not going to talk about the issue of judicial activism, or the question of whether California's citizens will assert their rights to reverse this action by approving a referendum amending their state constitution next fall. Instead, I am going to argue that allowing same-sex marriage will endanger the future of the engineering profession in this country.

Seems like a stretch, doesn't it? Here is my line of reasoning.

First, let me show that allowing same-sex marriages damages the institution of marriage. Some people simply do not see how conventional marriages between a man and a woman are in any way affected if we also let men marry men or women marry women. For these readers, let me make an analogy.

We have a nice solid base of well-functioning, highly capable engineering colleges in the U. S. Most of them are accredited through a rigorous process of inspections, visits, and continuous improvement. Suppose we passed a law that said all employers must recognize engineering degrees from any institution calling itself a college of engineering, whether it was accredited or not. It would be illegal to refuse to hire an engineer simply on the basis of what college he or she got a degree from. (=all of society must recognize marriage certificates of all kinds, whether for same-sex marriages or not.) We would leave the whole accreditation machinery in place, and universities capable of giving a good accredited education would still be able to do so. (=men and women who want to marry the opposite sex can still do so.)

What do you think would happen to the institution of engineering higher education in this country? Outfits handing out engineering degrees would spring up like newsstands on every corner, and students would flock to them. The average competency level of degree-holding engineers in this country would go into a precipitate decline, and the whole process of engineering education might undergo permanent damage that would take years or decades to repair, if ever. And note: in this hypothetical scenario, we did nothing whatever to the good schools. They were still free to stay accredited and do their good, competent job. We simply forced everyone to recognize the fly-by-night institutions as competent, but they were in fact incompetent.

The adjective "incompetent" often carries negative connotations, but it need not do so. It simply means that the noun modified is incapable of doing something or other. I have no shame in admitting the fact that, being a male, I am incompetent to bear a child. Women are incompetent to beget children without a male being involved somewhere along the line. And two men together, or two women together, are incompetent when it comes to fulfilling the practical duties and responsibilities of marriage, namely: being a biological and social unit that consists of a man as father, a woman as mother, and children who each have the same mother and father.

There are many scientific studies—thousands, in fact—performed by sociologists with all kinds of backgrounds and personal beliefs, which examine the question, "Do children who grow up in a family consisting of one mother and one father who are married and stay married, do better than children raised in any other kind of environment?" To qualify "better" you can look at social adjustment, criminal records, levels of school achievement, early or frequent sex and drug use, rates of depression and suicide, and so on. And the resounding, repeatable, monotonously consistent answer is, "Yes." This is not to say that kids raised by a single mother or two gay men are doomed to failure and a miserable existence. The human spirit can triumph over adversity of whatever kind. But when children are examined in statistically significant numbers, there is no question that the social institution we call conventional intact marriage beats any other way of raising children hands-down. That is not an ideological statement. It is a social-science statement backed up by years of the best kind of research that social science can offer these days. If you don't believe me on that, see David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage.

Now for the connection to engineering. It is my subjective impression, which I wish some social scientist would check out with the machinery of their trade, that the better grade of engineering students come from just the kind of stable family background that same-sex marriage will militate against. The National Science Foundation, among other institutions in this country, is concerned that very few students of either sex (and especially few women) choose engineering as an undergraduate degree, and even fewer decide to go on to graduate school. This is why it is increasingly rare to find engineering professors who were born in the U. S., because whatever mysterious factor it is that makes people want engineering graduate degrees is in short supply in this country, but seems to be plentiful abroad.

I will not claim that unstable marriages, divorced and remarried couples, single parents, and same-sex parenting is responsible for the entire decline in interest in engineering among young people in the U. S. But I believe a part of it is. And if we damage the institution of marriage further by insisting that same-sex unions get the same recognition as conventional marriages, I forecast a worsening dearth of U. S. students able to muster the discipline and deferred gratification necessary to pursue careers in engineering. I suspect we will wait a long time before the National Science Foundation comes out in opposition to same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, if I'm right, it might do more good for them to work in that direction than to spend their money on some of the programs they have supported in the past to encourage students to become engineers.

There. I made the connection. Like it, hate it, argue with it as you will. But that is my opinion, and as far as the marriage part goes, I'm on solid ground, not hanging from a tree by a limb.

Sources: Although I have not read the book, David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage comes highly recommended as a careful, scientifically reasoned argument written by a person who favors equal rights for homosexuals, but is convinced by scientific evidence that same-sex marriage would be too high a price to pay.


  1. Isn't preference already given to engineers with degrees from better ranked schools? MIT vs. TX State for example?

  2. Yes, you went out on a limb. However, this limb cracks under these following critiques:

    Ignoring systems of oppression when referencing studies. You "cite" various studies that show that children who do not have a nuclear family mother and father are more likely to be maladjusted, have criminal records, early or frequent sex or drug use, and increased likelihood of suicide and depression. However, you fail to ask why this is the case. You take it for granted that it is because they do not have a mother and father. Perhaps a deeper, more structural problem is the case. Perhaps it is because our society is structurally sexist (example: there is little support for a single mother; there is lots of support for a middle class, heterosexual married couple), structurally homophobic (children of same-sex parents have to deal with homophobia against their parents and against themselves). Perhaps if we worked toward a less sexist, less homophobic society, children of single parents and same-sex couples would be less likely to be "maladjusted" than children of traditional families. (Though I doubt the validity of these studies, in part because they are ideological, which I will discuss below.)

    We are always already ideological. You claim that conventional marriages raise children better than non-traditional families that that "That is not an ideological statement. It is a social-science statement backed up by years of the best kind of research that social science can offer these days." By making this claim, you are appealing to an "objective" truth — that this knowledge is outside of ideology. However, it is an ideological statement. Ideology is, under one definition, how we perceive our relationship with society and how we act in society. Social science is as ideological as any other field of study. This caveat to protect the "objectivity" of this research is unsound.

    You do not account for unearned privilege and how university education is geared in favor of white, male, middle class students. You claim that "the better grade of engineering students come from just the kind of stable family background that same-sex marriage will militate against." Even if this is true, why is it the case? It is not because children of traditional families are inherently "superior" students, but because of a whole system of unearned privileges that help children of traditional families succeed economically and educationally. Example: A son or a daughter of a middle class couple is more likely to be going to a stronger high school, more likely to have more books at home, more likely to be encouraged to go to college, more likely to be able to afford college — these are economic and social advantages granted to children of traditional couples because of system injustices.

    You work under the assumption that marriage is solely or mostly about raising children. While I agree that this is true, in part, it's also flawed reasoning. This is because, by your reasoning, marriage is not a good idea unless it is procreative, and the children know their biological parents ("being a biological and social unit that consists of a man as father, a woman as mother, and children who each have the same mother and father"). If this is true, then heterosexual men and women who are unable to procreate should also not marry (they can't have children!). Women over a certain age could not get married (they can't have children!).

    You are working under the same assumption that David Blankenhorm makes in The Future of Marriage. I have only read the introduction, but he argues against his friend who claims that marriage is about private property. Blankenhorn claims instead that marriage is about raising children. But the question arises, in the historical development of the nuclear family, why did it arise that way? Was it because it was the best way to raise children? I doubt it. I think that other societies where children are raised communally or raised by large extended families have healthy children who contribute to society. Those societies haven't failed. I think Blankenhorn's friend is correct: the reason to have our current nuclear family is for property reasons. If there is a single man and a single woman, it is clear whose children they are, and it's clear who inherits property. Our current Western model of family didn't arise because it was best for children; it arose because it was best for the continuity of property under a capitalist system.

    You use a poor analogy. You make the analogy between a system of engineering accreditation and extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. This analogy treats our lifeworld — how we can create and live our lives — as a strategic structure. It takes the strategic rationality of professionalism, corporatism, and science (as it is currently practiced) and places it into the lived experiences of folks. Which leads to my next critique:

    You fail to account for how we are creative beings, creating our world. Why must our society be the way it is? Why must society malign same-sex couples and their children to the point that it is more difficult to be gay or lesbian or the child of gays and lesbians? Why can't we have faith that we can work toward a better society, one in which it is possible for a variety of lifestyles to flourish and be successful, and for people to not have dignity maimed based on a classification?

    Your argument fails the test of your own ethical paradigm. In the Fall 2007 Technology and Society Magazine, you argue that engineers should follow the Golden Rule: to treat others how you would like to be treated. Part of your argument is also predicated on the belief that you could well be the next victim. (I am going off the abstract on Academic Search Premier, as the magazine is proprietary and I could not read the article online.) However, in your argument against same-sex marriage, you neglect this ethical paradigm. I assume you would not want to be told you could not get married. Why would you support a system where others are told they could not get married? You could very well be the next victim. Perhaps our government has a conservative backlash and decides that other classes of people cannot get married? (I know this last part reeks of the slippery slope fallacy.) Unless the abstract is not true to your actual article, or unless your article contains some caveats (treat others as you want to be treated, unless they're queer), then your blog post does not adhere to your own ethics.

    I could go on, but I think that is enough.

  3. You argue that kids of single mothers or same-sex couples are statistically less likely to be good engineers, so it's a good reason to withhold legal recognition from their families. Are you thinking that they will do a better job of raising their kids if they don't have the legal rights of marriage? Or are you simply worried that more people will have same-sex partners if marriage is allowed? The latter doesn't seem likely to me.

    I guess an interesting test of that might be to see how children of mixed-race couples fared before and after legalization of mixed-race marriages. I bet the kids did better after legalization, and that would be evidence that it's the social support of the institution of marriage that helps the kids, not the particulars of who's getting married.

    So there's a testable hypothesis for you, but I have no idea how to go about researching it.

  4. Hmmm, I've read some of those sociological studies you allude to. And the ones I've read end up pointing to a stable economic base (and love, of course) as what is so crucial to raising productive and happy children. In other words, it's not that children need a father and a mother. It's that they need economic stability (and love, of course). And that probably does come more often from two-parent families rather than single-parent ones. So the sex of the parents -- necessarily, at least -- probably has little to do with it -- except, of course, that in our society, male/female partnerships have the advantage due to the laws that support them and the fact that men make more money on average than women. So perhaps more male/male parents would actually INCREASE the number of outstanding engineering students. In any case, expect to find great engineering students having economically stable and loving parents (no matter what their sexes).

    And your analogy with same-sex marriage and engineering program accreditation assumes that same-sex marriage is analogous to a non-accredited program. But I think that making marriage something that includes all human beings is an enhancement to the institution of marriage. So in my version of the analogy, suddenly the accredited engineering programs would get a shot in the arm, would be suddenly two or three times MORE valuable. Suddenly, accreditation would mean "more ethical overall" and would thereby be worth more (at least, to those who value justice and equality).