Present Problems

January 2008 » Columns
The following passage is taken from a paper read before the American Institute of Mining Engineers. Titled "Present Problems in the Training of Mining Engineers," it contrasts particular differences between European and American styles of engineering education, especially as related to the graduate’s entrance into the work force.
Jason Burke, P.E., MPEM

The following passage is taken from a paper read before the American Institute of Mining Engineers. Titled "Present Problems in the Training of Mining Engineers," it contrasts particular differences between European and American styles of engineering education, especially as related to the graduate’s entrance into the work force.

Under American conditions, it is unsafe to specialize too soon and on too narrow a basis. Here the mere specialist, outside of his specialty, is as helpless as a hermit crab outside of his shell, and unless he possesses the ability to adapt himself speedily to a rapidly changing environment, is sure to go under. The present age in America is one of rapid change in all industrial and engineering methods, such as has never been seen in the world before. Old established processes are being continually swept aside and replaced by new ones. These changes occur with kaleidoscopic speed and unexpectedness; and the man who has painfully armed himself with precedent and ancient lore finds himself hopelessly beaten before he can even make a start in the race. The American has always been characterized by his fertility of resource and power of adaptation. This has been his strength; his weakness has been his impatience to plunge into practice without a sufficiently broad and deep scientific training.

The paper then paraphrases yet another author, writing a few years earlier:

The lawyer, the physician, and, to some extent also, the clergyman, depends for his success almost entirely upon his individual knowledge and intellectual abilities. … But with the engineer this is not the case. His work cannot be done except through the friendly aid, not only of many engineering co-workers, but also through the help of capital and labor, the two most difficult elements in our civilization. From the inception of the original idea to its final completion, men and money, brains and brawn, nature and human nature, must work together without friction for a common purpose.

Finally, an observation of the pursuit of education:

Credentials, degrees, diplomas, and recommendations that in Europe carry great weight, in America often receive but scant attention. The American often amuses himself with titles, but deep down in his nature is an instinctive distrust of anyone who takes them seriously.

I have chosen these passages to illustrate that the engineers of today, the oldest of whom may have been practicing for more than 50 years, still face the same problems that our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and maybe even great-great-grandparents struggled with. The paper that I excerpted was written not in the 1980s, or even 1950s (as you may have sensed). It was presented in 1904. The second paragraph referenced an article written for Engineering News in 1893. Engineering, law, medicine, and even religion have surely advanced since that time, and some of the statements above may need some refinement, but they nevertheless capture the essence of what it means to become an engineer and the timeless qualities that allow engineering to be the learned profession that it is.

We should always be wary of thinking that we are the only ones who have faced a particular problem. More than likely, history has indeed repeated itself (perhaps several times), and we need only to examine our history and heritage to see several possible solutions. In some cases, they have been tried and have failed, either because of poor implementation or simply being ahead of their time. Perhaps it is time to dust off some of the old journals and examine not just how we have come to be where we are, but to see where others may have already addressed our problems and we have somehow misplaced the solutions.

The reference to the paper is: "Present Problems in the Training of Mining Engineers," by Dr. S. B. Christy, University of California, Berkeley, Bulletin of the Department of Mining and Metallurgy, UC Berkeley, 1905. It can be located online through Google Books, at this link.

Jason Burke, P.E., works for Allied Engineering in Bozeman, Mont.


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