When I taught in the Vanderbilt School of Engineering’s PAVE program I learned a few really useful things from Doc Barnett. One is a graph that I use on the first day of every class I teach. It shows how long a paper needs to be, with the X axis of length and the Y axis of quality. At a certain point you hit the optimum combination of length and quality:

I always enjoyed when Doc B told the assembled wannabe engineers (with their perfect SAT math scores), “Engineers don’t do math. Engineers don’t build things. Engineers solve problems.” When I do my engineering-writing tutorials, I bore my students to tears by continually asking, “What is the problem? Does this help you to solve it?”

This brings me to the current Government’s very very limited interest in higher education. Up in Auckland, there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle over Minister Steven Joyce taking a great deal of interest in how UAuckland, and other NZ tertiary institutions get run. Short version of Minister Joyce’s money-talking: tertiaries will get more money, but only for engineering and science. Even the people who stand to see that money can see it’s a plan with not a few problems.

Then there’s the university where I sometimes draw a pay cheque. Today’s email from the chancellor and vice-chancellor tells us that UC’s on board for the “more spots for engineers and scientists” (I cheer for that; it means more engineering-tutor work for me).

After considering the UC business case the Government has confirmed its agreement in principle, subject to a more detailed business case which will determine the level of support to be provided, to help the University address the financial impacts of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes by providing capital support to advance its science and engineering capabilities…..

When it comes to “a more detailed business case,” I’m sure that business case #3 will convince Minister Joyce. Perhaps the business cases aren’t having much of an impact because they’re not especially well-written. Should they wish to optimize their case-making, I can incentivize their hiring decisions by promising the sort of clear prose that convinces motherfuckers to open their wallets up. But I’m not surprised that’s it’s all STEM all the time, because 1947 happened a long time ago. Erich Fromm had this to say:

From grade school to grad school, the aim of learning is to gather as much information as possible that is mainly useful for the purposes of the market. Students are supposed to learn so many things that they have hardly time and energy left to think. Not the interest in the subjects taught or in knowledge and insight as such, but the enhanced exchange value knowledge gives is the main incentive for wanting more knowledge and education. We find today a tremendous enthusiasm for knowledge and education, but at the same time a skeptical or contemptuous attitude toward the allegedly impractical and useless thinking which is concerned “only” with the truth and which has no exchange value on the market. Man for Himself (1947)

My BA institution Illinois State University bowdlerized Chaucer into the school motto “Gladly we learn and teach”. Minister Joyce seems to be an Oscar Wilde fan, since what he wants is for tertiary education in New Zealand to teach “the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

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