My View

Meeting challenge of changing world takes careful planning

Graduate student notes that knowledge must be used wisely;

I catch myself looking out the window more and more these days trying to predict what is going to happen to us when we graduate from here. This is something that I spend a lot of time doing because that’s why I’m here—I looked up at that banner that asked us, “Why not change the world?” not as a pithy joke, but as a serious challenge. The world is changing rapidly, and I worry that we are not taking that challenge seriously enough. The world isn’t just moving from analog to digital; from physical storage mediums in the home to storage across the cloud. The world is moving from a place where the old expectations about growth and work and prestige are up for grabs. Our world is quickly becoming one where the spark that will change the nature of science and engineering itself doesn’t have to come from Boston or the West Coast, but in a plucky little school that doesn’t have anything to lose because the world that it used to build students for was completed and abandoned. I catch myself looking out of the window at the world and thinking that we are going to need a new plan if we’re going to change the world we are actually entering.

This realization casts into doubt so much of what we have staked our knowledge on. We have to take seriously the idea that the knowledge that we receive is delayed through time and mistranslated through well meaning people. We try to trust the price of the food we buy and the gas we pump as indicators of how much we will have to earn to meet our basic needs, but we must remember that these numbers, this information, is artificially raised and lowered for a variety of reasons. We hear rumors of what we might expect to earn when we graduate and the conditions of that work. We hang on to the number of zeros the most successful among us can hope to earn, but do we ask how many of those jobs are left? Forget our placement rate—what is our current misplacement rate? We’re insulated from the shock of many economic changes for the stability of our sanity and so that we might continue our schooling undisturbed, but what if those disturbances are what should guide our decisions as much as the promise of power and stability? If you’ve ever had your elders attempt to explain to you what it is like to enter the job market from their experience as college grads decades ago, you understand how their well-meaning mismatch of information can be dangerous if it is taken without consideration. As President Shirley Ann Jackson was wise to point out in 2004, “It takes several decades to ‘build’ a scientist or an engineer. There is no ‘quick fix.’” And to that I would add that the fix cannot come in the production of the scientist or the maladaption of that technical person to a system that has changed so substantially to not need the full range of his or her talents.

We’re going to need new information about the world, and more importantly, we’re going to need a new goal for our school to aim for in order to reorient ourselves to change the world. Of ourselves, we must not merely ask, “Why not change the world?,” but, “What things do we need to learn today about that world in order to make the most of the change we will bring into this world?”