A Bridge Too Far

From the bench, Chief Justice John Roberts asked in Fisher v. Texas what diversity brought to physics. The reaction from the cheap progressive physics seats was unsatisfying.

We reject the premise that the presence of minority students and the existence of diversity need to be justified, but meanwhile segregation in physics is tacitly accepted as normal or good. Instead, we embrace the assumption that minority physics students are brilliant and ask, “Why does physics education routinely fail brilliant minority students?”

In other words, they’ve got nothing, which was a shame as there was a sound answer. But the question was a good one, and a difficult one, as science isn’t dependent on feelings, but facts. You don’t have to like gravity, but you’re going to have one hell of a time denying its existence.

But the argument has been creeping into such disciplines as engineering that gravity is just social construct born of white supremacy. Glaciers are sexist. The days of science remaining aloof from the vicissitudes of social justice may soon be over.

There are several other reasons why we got into engineering. One of them was the absence of what I describe here as “social engineering,” where the professor/instructor is interested not so much in solving technical problems as in setting the world right—in his or her opinion.

A second and related reason is that engineering (and the sciences generally) should be, like the scales of justice, blind. Engineering does not care about your color, sexual orientation, or your other personal and private attributes. All it takes to succeed is to do the work well.

Even as an undergraduate many years ago, my engineering classmates and I noticed that fact, and we were proud to have a major that valued only the quality of one’s work. In that sense, engineering was like athletics, or music, or the military: there were strict and impersonal standards.

As every woke persons already knows, there is no such thing as meritocracy. You didn’t deserve to run fast, but enjoyed the luck of genetics. Privilege, whether physical or cognitive, is unearned. Working well isn’t all it takes to succeed, as you must first get the opportunity to work well.

Alas, the world we engineers envisioned as young students is not quite as simple and straightforward as we had wished because a phalanx of social justice warriors, ideologues, egalitarians, and opportunistic careerists has ensconced itself in America’s college and universities. The destruction they have caused in the humanities and social sciences has now reached to engineering.

One of the features of their growing power is the phenomenon of “engineering education” programs and schools. They have sought out the soft underbelly of engineering, where phrases such as “diversity” and “different perspectives” and “racial gaps” and “unfairness” and “unequal outcomes” make up the daily vocabulary. Instead of calculating engine horsepower or microchip power/size ratios or aerodynamic lift and drag, the engineering educationists focus on group representation, hurt feelings, and “microaggressions” in the profession.

And therein the issue shifts, from giving every student capable of being a brilliant engineer, to socially engineering the discipline to fit the feelings of the students.

Once I became a professor, I never worried about how “socially connected” the education we provided at Michigan State for engineering students was. With trepidation, I read on to see if I was missing something important. I learned to my dismay that Purdue’s engineering education school rests on three bizarre pillars: “reimagining engineering and engineering education, creating field-shaping knowledge, and empowering agents of change.”

There is no doubt that engineers should come in every color and flavor, and in the course of their education, should bring to bear their interests and concerns. It may well be that one engineer with a particular interest in ways to purify water can effect wonderful change by coming up with a new way to bring clean water to places in need of it. Great stuff.

But of course, it just can’t stop at great inventions that help people.

The recently appointed dean of Purdue’s school, Dr. Donna Riley, has an ambitious agenda.

In her words (italics mine): “I seek to revise engineering curricula to be relevant to a fuller rangeof student experiences and career destinations, integrating concerns related to public policy, professional ethics, and social responsibility; de-centering Western civilization; and uncovering contributions of women and other underrepresented groups…. We examine how technology influences and is influenced by globalization, capitalism, and colonialism…. Gender is a key…[theme]…[throughout] the course…. We…[examine]… racist and colonialist projects in science….”

Does the good dean propose there be girl bridges and boy bridges? Should Newton be ignored because he was a white male? What are the implications for the engineering curriculum?

We’re told that “diversity in education refers to the effects of gender and ethnicity on student performance.” Issues like “validation” and “learning styles” are discussed, and of course the instructor must teach “to address all three forms of diversity.”

The central philosophical premise of the article is leveling. It absolves students of responsibility and provides the non-learner with a ready excuse (“my teacher is a bigot!”). And there is no way to quantify its assertions.

It’s one thing for the fabricating perpetual excuses in tandem with the dumbing down of the gender studies curriculum, given that no bridge will collapse because somebody can’t spell “intersectional.” But engineering doesn’t have that latitude. If you build a really, really tall building that’s improperly engineered, it’s going to fall down. What it will not do is remain up because of the engineer’s color or gender, or any of the bold excuses for why thermodynamics is toxic masculinity.

This doesn’t mean women and minorities shouldn’t be engineers. Of course they should. But they still need to be able to do the math so the pink bridge doesn’t fall down. Engineers are all for tolerance, sometimes to the thousandths of an inch.

37 comments on “A Bridge Too Far

  1. B. McLeod

    Well, as with trannies and global warming, once the “science” is appropriately politicized, then the courts will tell us which “science” is “right,” and that will be the “science” we are bound to accept and believe.

  2. Dan

    “This doesn’t mean women and minorities shouldn’t be engineers. Of course they should.”

    …if they want to, and are able to–though I don’t think there’s particularly a shortage of “minorities” (if by that you mean “non-whites”) in engineering. If women want to be engineers, and those women are able to perform at a comparable level to their male counterparts, more power to them. But I think we’ve seen that far fewer women than men want to be engineers (or at least want to badly enough to actually pursue the required course of study). So either we have fewer women in the field, or we have the affirmative action problem you discussed recently (though with much greater potential consequences than would result from admitting a poorly-qualified woman/black/trans/whatever to an English Literature program).

  3. DaveL

    If you build a really, really tall building that’s improperly engineered, it’s going to fall down.

    He did say it was all about leveling. Call it “Truth in Advertising.”

  4. Erik H

    All of my kids are in advanced math and both of my daughters are already discussing careers in engineering as a top choice. And one thing I can see is that at the middle school and high school level, a small majority are girls.

    They would be furious if anyone suggested that they were less intelligent because of their sex. You can’t be in STEM if you don’t have the brainpower, and the SJ stuff in that context is utter bullshit. If they don’t both graduate with every math and science AP course they can take, I’ll be amazed.

    The only area where the latest change makes at least some sense is to try to reduce the chance that all of those smart engineer-wannabe girls aren’t driven away by four years of sexism in college/grad school. The math and engineering departments at my school were pretty damn sexist, to be sure, although it was way too long ago. If you take any two equivalent students and treat one significantly worse, then that one (male or female) is likely to move elsewhere.

    But that is a very limited area. “Try to somewhat reduce the # of people who are openly sexist” is one thing; “question Western civilization and capitalism” is another thing.

    Sigh. Well, I hope they go somewhere sane.

    1. SHG Post author

      Sometimes, your implicit bias shows when you least expect it. That’s what makes it implicit.

      Forty years ago, there were girls in engineering. They didn’t “move elsewhere” because they wanted to be engineers. Today, everything is problematic because everyone is unduly sensitive about what’s problematic, which is why everything is problematic. But if your girls want to be engineers, they will be. If not, they’ll be gender studies majors. You can attribute their move to anything you want, but it’s not because girls aren’t smart enough to be engineers no matter what excuse you invent to justify the outcome.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Says the guy who never had an afro or wore five inch hooped earrings, let alone was in possession of both at the same time, during a 300 level metallurgy course, at 19, that was addressing molecular geometry, given by a professor who had Elza Soares issues.

        There is a reason spiral earrings have never really become a thing you know! AND I don’t blame Elza.

        https://youtu.be/7s4pagJ6MwU

          1. Mike G.

            How about the four inch platform shoes with the clear heels and the little gold fish in them, plus the bell bottom jeans and tie-dyed t-shirt. That would have been the proper ensemble for the “jewfro” and the “afro.”

            1. Mike G.

              Ok you made me look it up. Now I remember. I used to have a couple of those shirts back in the day. Never remembered them being called “huckapoo” shirts though. Probably my CRS kicking in again.

            2. rxc

              I remember interviewing for a job at Bechtel in LA in 1978, and the (white) engineering manager who talked to me was wearing gold lame trousers, one of those big fluffy shirts with no tie, open to a bare chest, and a fluffy hairdo. I was just coming out of the US Navy. I did not think, at that time, that I wanted to work for this guy. These days I would not let it bother me, but I would not completely ignore it.

          2. John Barleycorn

            Touche’…

            But back to the science at hand man.

            You know Stephan, and Ruth are just jealous, especially Stephan right? Elana on the other hand? She’s got what it takes, just like you, but she has never really embraced her hair heritage since high school.

            I HAVE ALWAYS wondered what was up with that! Now that we know why, makes sense I guess?

            I still think it’s bullshit though. And not just because there hasn’t been a ruling in 20 years that isn’t all frizzed out and whacky at the ends or all the way to the roots,  either. Elana would be smoking hot if she embraced it!

            You on the other hand… Well, all I have to say about that is, you should-a-went Kojak, back before it was “cool”.

            You could have gone places kid…

            Well, for all of our sakes, pray for a broad spectrum of hair genes to go into engineering in the years to come, because it is gonna take an army to pick up the pieces. Not to mention pull off a long layerd bob, let alone bring back the bun tower, and the CIA stopped hiring structural engineers who minored in astrophysics back in the 80’s.

            P.S. And BTW, fuck all these color revolutions going on all over the world. Isn’t it about time for spiral earrings to go global? Gold and the Anvil with a twist brought to you by some 25 year-old astronomer studying at Bowdin College in Maine with a vagina via first generation immigrant parents from Norway or Argentina who settled in Kansas when she was five.

            You heard it hear first, it’s our only hope…

             

      2. rxc

        Forty years ago there were girls in engineering. I had three in my chemical engineering class, and one of them got a job offer straight out of undergrad for a position in a US Atomic Energy Lab, because they needed some diversity. They told her that, at the interview.

        Just before I retired 10 years ago, I had two black women working for me, and one white woman who had raised three daughters, all of whom went into engineering. The women worked harder than any of the men, and they produced superior written products. They did not think the same was as the guys, though, which can cause problems if you approach a situation differently from your peers – somethings it is good, sometimes not so good. I would have hired as many of them as I could, if they were available, but they aren’t. One of the black women easily could have turned her “intersectionality points” into a management position, but she preferred to stay an engineer so that she could go home every night to her kids and husband (who she divorced last year, I have heard).

        My sister (a musician) tried to get her one daughter interested in STEM, but the damn girl kept gravitating to the pink tutus and dolls instead of the cars and mechanical erector sets. She eventually became a IP lawyer in NYC (very successful), after getting a degree in performance art.

        Women have different interests from men. I think most men have, by now, given up trying to convert women to think like men – certainly any intelligent husband has learned that lesson. Some women are just a bit further behind in recognizing the differences – they don’t realize that they can’t really change us, so they become SJWs and do what they do best – bitch about it.

        1. SHG Post author

          They did not think the same was as the guys, though, which can cause problems if you approach a situation differently from your peers – somethings it is good, sometimes not so good.

          This was the crux of my argument for diversity in physics, that different experiences lent to different approaches and different solutions. It wasn’t that “one is good, the other bad,” but different. Sometimes, that’s what’s needed.

          1. rxc

            You know, this is even more true at the level of a marriage. Try telling your wife sometime that you need more diversity of experience and opinion about how to make your marriage work and see where that leads.

  5. Jake

    I followed the “Glaciers are sexist” link expecting a listicle about which glaciers are sexiest. Time to brew more covfefe.

  6. M. Kase

    For whatever it’s worth, from my perspective as an engineering undergrad, the tendency for soft societal things to occupy time better spent on real engineering skills is alive ahead present at my fancy university. However, I’m of two minds about it. Sure, it means that future engineers are going to be shittier than they could be, but it also means I’ll wiggle a few spots higher compared to everyone else entering the workforce.

  7. rxc

    One last comment – there have been a LOT of “men of color” in engineering for a very long time. Most of them have been Indians and Pakistanis and Chinese, doing a lot of very involved calculations in the back offices of large engineering firms. I worked in industry for a year, and the pipe stress department at the firm where I worked was almost entirely asian. They were the only mechanical engineers who were interested in doing repetitive, mind-numbing calculations that HAD TO BE DONE, over and over, for years.

    I also had several asian engineers (including two muslims) working for me in the government. They would never dare check the “black” box on the HR survey forms, because they did not consider themselves to be “persons of color”, even though some of them were much darker than most of the real “blacks” in the office. They were the one group that was truly under-represented in management, because most of them could not master the slick management thinking process and speech patterns. I know one who did, and he was VERY successful.

  8. Morgan O.

    “In that sense, engineering was like athletics, or music, or the military: there were strict and impersonal standards.”

    Heh. Hehehhe. It’s adorable that civilians still believe we’re in that business. Admittedly, slightly less batty than the average university, but we still get more time in diversity training than we do on the rifle range. But all professions/work environments are downstream of culture. Leadership is terrified of being the victim of the next howling mob, and True Believers smell opportunity. I for one wish to welcome our new Political Officer, by offering him tea in my wardroom.

    At least we’re still allowed to make jokes about Russians. Thanks, Vlad!

  9. Fubar

    SHG wrote:

    If you build a really, really tall building that’s improperly engineered, it’s going to fall down. What it will not do is remain up because of the engineer’s color or gender, or any of the bold excuses for why thermodynamics is toxic masculinity.

    From my forthcoming tome of toxic masculine practical advice for women Physics students¹:

    When you find the elusive Higgs Boson,
    Just remember to keep all your clothes on.
    For photo reviews
    When your find makes the news,
    Synchrotrons are the best things to pose on!

    FN 1: A singularly brilliant Physics student with whom I was honored to have been classmate in a poetry class no less, died tragically young more than a quarter century ago. But not before she became professor of Physics, then dean of undergraduate education at that trade school that students love to hate. And not before she revolutionized undergrad education there. She also had a devilish wry sense of humor. So, Scotty, this one’s for you.

    1. SHG Post author

      In college, I considered taking Physics for Poets, but decided to go with Wine Tasting instead. You make the decision slightly more difficult.

      1. rxc

        I once had a boss (in the Navy) who had taken what he called “Physics for Poets”, while getting his degree in history at Harvard. He went on to become Chief Engineer, and then Executive Officer on a nuclear powered guided missle cruiser. Never got any degree in engineering, but more on-the-job training than you can imagine.

  10. JR

    ENGINEERING

    “It is a great profession. There is the fascination of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to men. Then it elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege.”

    “The great liability of the engineer compared to men of other professions is that his works are out in the open where all can see them. His acts, step by step, are in hard substance. He cannot bury his mistakes in the grave like the doctors. He cannot argue them into thin air or blame the judge like the lawyers. He cannot, like the politicians, screen his shortcomings by blaming his opponents and hope the people will forget. The engineer simple cannot deny he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned.”

    “On the other hand, unlike the doctor, his is not a life among the weak. Unlike the soldier, destruction is not his purpose. Unlike the lawyer, quarrels are not his daily bread. To the engineer falls the job of clothing the bare bones of science with life, comfort, and hope. No doubt as the years go by people forget what engineer did it, even if they ever knew. Or some politician puts his name on it. Or they credit it to some promoter who used other people’s money. But the engineer himself looks back at the unending stream of goodness which flows from his successes with satisfaction that few professions may know. And the verdict of his fellow professional is all the accolade he wants.”
    – Herbert Hoover

  11. Edward

    Your link to “Glaciers are Sexist” is a good example of why I regularly visit your site. Oh, and your sage-like knowledge of course.

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