The Quest for Perpetual Motion

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In an apparent attempt to establish its identity as a boatload of busybodies, ExxonMobil has been running ads in which a series of adolescents tries to convince other adolescents to become engineers. The young’uns, most of whom come across as pushy and unpleasant, if not positively unbalanced by somebody’s good intentions, ask the mighty questions of our time:

Who’s gonna do it? . . .
Design cars that capture emissions?
Build bridges that fix themselves?
Get more clean water to everyone?

The answer, according to the scripted kids, is: “Engineers! That’s who! Be an engineer!

I wouldn’t mind if more kids became engineers, but I hope that someone will let them know that engineers don’t just think up a trendy “problem” and then fix it.

Consider the idea of “bridges that fix themselves.” Even I can imagine a bridge with some contraption attached to it that could make some kind of repairs on the rest of the bridge. But how much would that contraption cost? How much would it cost to construct? Who would pay for it? With what? Earned in what way? Who would maintain it? Who would supervise its operations? Who would fix it when it needed to be fixed? Who would pay all these people? Again, with what? What would the engineer who designed the “self-fixing” bridge — or the people who constructed it, or the people who are supposed to run it — have been doing if some do-gooder hadn’t commissioned him to work on such a structure? Would he have been designing something more useful, perhaps?

I have some other questions, too — larger, and almost as obvious. What kind of society makes possible the existence of engineers and the situations in which they are able to devise whatever they devise? On what assumptions, institutions, and practices is that society based? If, for example, everyone doesn’t have clean water, why is that? Is it because enough ambitious young people somehow failed to become engineers? Or is it because of some broader problem, some problem that may involve authoritarian government, superstitious resentment of “Western” science, a static, anticapitalist economy, “the tragedy of the commons” (i.e., communal ownership), a lack of respect for “women’s work” (washing, cooking, getting water) . . . Is it possible that these are problems, and that they won’t be solved by clean little TV kids who want to “fix” all the “issues” their teachers mention?

How do you find the answers to these questions? Who’s gonna do it — who’s going to study the economic history and political philosophy and social practices and moral concepts that may shed light on them? If society provides a good environment for our young engineers, how can that environment be maintained? If society goes bad, who will fix it? How? And at what price, financial and intellectual? Or will social conditions fix themselves, because some social engineer devised a political contraption to make that happen? And will it work &‐ or will it be the kind of thing that engineers used to call, derisively, a perpetual motion machine?

Because that is what the Exxon ad promotes: the idea, already far too prominent in our society, that there are self-fixing, frictionless, cost-free solutions for every problem — the idea that there is, in fact, such a thing as a perpetual motion machine.




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Why Choose Less?

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A recent story in the WSJ caught my eye, since it bears on a topic that is of much practical importance but hasn’t been much investigated. The issue is: why do college students choose the majors they choose?

As I have reported elsewhere, there is now a detailed economic study about what students of various college majors earn later in life. Not surprisingly, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors do better financially than, say, humanities majors. But this study only confirmed what was widely understood all along. It’s not as if students (and parents) hadn’t already understood the disparity of incomes, ranked by major.

But this recent WSJ piece reports that students are picking the easier majors, even though they know that those majors offer lower financial payoffs. It tells the tale of one young Chinese American who enrolled at Carnegie Mellon as an electrical and computer engineering major, only to switch to a major in psychology and policy management (whatever the hell that is!). Psych majors average about $38,000 a year less than computer engineering grads. She explained her decision by saying, “My ability level was just not there.”

The authors raise the issue of whether the continuing bad economy will persuade more students to major in the STEM subjects. But the trend hasn’t been good in that regard. From 2001 to 2009, while the number of college grads increased by 29%, the number of engineering grads only increased by 19%, and those with computer science degrees actually dropped 14%.

In fact, the full stats are even grimmer. As the estimable Sol Stern has recently noted, over the last 50 years, technological innovation was responsible for over half of all American economic growth. However, bachelor’s degrees in engineering (awarded to American students, not foreign nationals) peaked in 1985 and have dropped ever since. We are now down 23% from that peak. Only 6% of American college students major in engineering, compared with 12% in Europe and Israel, not to mention the 20% level in Japan and South Korea. We are near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to the percentage of college grads with STEM degrees.

Returning now to the WSJ article: it notes that one problem is the perceived disparity in difficulty between STEM courses and those in the humanities and social sciences. Ms. Zhou found that she went from earning C’s and B’s in engineering to A’s in psychology. There is nothing new here, of course. Students have noticed for decades how much easier it is to score much higher grades for much less work in non-STEM majors. Science and math majors average three hours more per week in study time. That difference may seem trivial, but students are increasingly less inclined to work. The article notes that the average time students spend studying has dropped by half since 1960.

It also notes, with evident approval, the efforts of some STEM departments to stem attrition by “modifying” their classes to make them — what? more palatable? — to students from other majors. In his class for liberal arts majors, one computer science prof cut down on the theory component in favor of practical programming. Now 85% of the students pass. What his pass rate was before this, the story doesn’t say. Presumably lots, lots lower.

Whether any of this constitutes dumbing down the subject, the story also doesn’t say.

It is also silent about what to my mind are the biggest issues here.

First, to what degree are humanities, social science, education, and other non-STEM departments inflating grades to attract students, or — given the pervasiveness of leftist thought in those departments — out of a loopy egalitarianism? Grade inflation, no less than monetary inflation, is a profound pricing problem.

Hayek and Kirzner urged us to understand pricing as a language. In a free market, if something fetches a low price, it tells the producer not to produce so much of it. I think that grading is pricing. If a student has to work and winds up with low grades, the grades are telling him that he may need to work still harder, or find another major. The STEM instructors are just doing their jobs and telling the truth to students.

But if (as I suspect) the grading standard has been inflated by many non-STEM professors, they are doing something immoral: they are lying to students about their real abilities. If I give A’s to all my philosophy students, I’m telling them that they are excellent at a subject, when most are not. I may encourage them to pursue a career when they shouldn’t, or — more to the point — not pursue a career they should.

Second, to what extent is this problem another example of the dismal failure of America’s public K-12 educational system — a failure that ramifies into the post-secondary educational system? I have suggested elsewhere that part of the reason many employers look to hire college grads for jobs that really require only a high school education is that a high school diploma from most urban public school districts no longer means a thing in terms of basic educational competence.

If students are switching to easier subjects, might that not be because so many of even the most technically talented young people were so badly instructed in math and science during K-12 that they face extra challenges learning the introductory college-level material? Similarly, if these students were never forced to work diligently in grade school or high school, might this not be the reason why they flee majors that require hard work, and in fact are studying less than ever before in college?

All of this is as disquieting as it is ignored by the mainstream media.




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