More notes from the Tech College… Digging around among the institutional histories, I came across a reference to The Education of Civil and Mechanical Engineers (E. & F. N. Spon, London, 1880) by Professor Henry Dyer, later a life governor of the College and a major influence on the pattern of training it offered. The book has helpfully been put online in its brief entirety by the nice people at openlibrary.org, and is worth a read for anyone who’s been charged with the education of engineering students and wants to know whether they were always like this. The answer, in short, appears to be “yes”.
I really don’t think I can improve on the words of the “tartan samurai”, so I’ll just leave a couple of passages to speak for themselves. On p. 13, we encounter the problem of transferring knowledge from the maths classroom to — well, just about anywhere else:
A great many students learn their mathematics in a purely mechanical way; they can differentiate and integrate, and solve all sorts of mathematical puzzles, but they have not the slightest idea of the physical meaning of the results. They put the problem into the mathematical mill, give the handle a few turns, and send out an alarmingly long formula, the meaning of which is quite beyond them.
I quite agree with Professor Kennedy, when he remarks:— “I have no hesitation in saying, that a man’s knowledge of mathematics ends, exactly where his ability to work problems ends; anything beyond that is useless, so far as his profession goes, and is even liable to have, in certain cases, disastrous consequences.”
That mill is still turning more than a century later, and I’ve seen plenty of its output — though as a colleague points out, “at least back then they could differentiate and integrate”.
And on p. 36, we meet the students who step off the school conveyor belt into college with very little idea why they are there:
Too often we find that the students who attend colleges at present, or who are premium apprentices at work, are simply being made into engineers by the orders of their parents, who seem to think that a little turn for making toy-models augurs well for their success in the profession, but a great many of these students have no heart in their work.
(You might be describing some of mine, Dyer-sensei: you really might.)
How different it would be, if these Colleges could attract men, who, having finished their apprenticeship, were determined by their own perseverance and energy to fight their way into the higher ranks of the profession.
It would indeed be different. At least Dyer’s book has helped cure me of believing that the students I teach, with all their apathy and terminal lack of smeddum, are a new phenomenon. It’s as well to be reminded of that.