Here are some essays that I have written in the last few years about the college mission. It will be no surprise that the focus of concern is principally the mission of making students aware of the impact their work has on society. I'm always anxious to hear from my readers so be sure to send me comments if you have any. My e-mail address is Tad_Beckman@hmc.edu.
Discussions that center on the mission of the college --- especially the "impact on society" part --- almost always assume that what is meant here is specifically "moral." So we immediately start talking about seminars on ethics and putting people in place who can offer moral guidance. Then we draw up sides relating to who is right and who is wrong. Then government and industry have to be defended, etc., etc.
What we forget in all of this is that the Catalog does not say (or even imply) that "impact" is only "moral impact." The issue of mission, it seems to me, is that broadly educated HMC students are able to understand the impact of their work in a very wide variety of ways --- psychological, sociological, economic, political, environmental, cultural, ethical, etc. Whatever we do has effects in all spheres; understanding these effects is important, I think, to understanding who we are and what we do as professionals. Very few of these are actually moral issues; nevertheless, they should matter to us.
It seems to me that there were three foci of concern that motivated and guided the creation of this college, beginning in the early 1950s. The first of these was the clear importance of science and engineering to the national economy. The second was the feeling that engineering needed to be taught with a higher level of education in mathematics and science. This was the so-called "science engineering" movement of the '50s. And the third concern was the disturbing feeling that scientists and engineers need better preparation in human and social dimensions of life so that they cannot simply become "tools" of out-of-control industries or governments. While US nuclear scientists had learned this lesson on their own, the main lesson was probably learned by observation of the scientific and engineering establishments in Germany and the USSR. All three of these concerns came out of the experience of World War II, and the impact of all three can be seen clearly in the mission statements of the college.
Presuming, then, that creating scientists and engineers who possess a "moral independence" from the specific interests of government and corporate institutions, we must ask how it was intended that this should happen and to what degree this independence would be advisable. Since I came to Harvey Mudd College precisely because of this remarkable project, it is painful for me to admit that, in my mind and experience, the college has failed miserably in achieving this end. In fact, it has failed to even address it in any serious way. Instead, the college has been so concerned about its success and reputation that it has carved out an extraordinarily conservative path in wooing the attention and support of government and corporate enterprises. Next to its concern for fiscal stability, the college's greatest concern is advancing students into high-paying career paths. Where, one must ask, is the concern for developing a critique of those paths?
[This was an e-mail sent to the faculty list, which includes many administrators as well. It was noteworthy to me, and somewhat disturbing, that absolutely no person responded in any way to this essay. Ah, the spirit of discussion is not alive and well at Harvey Mudd College!]
You all received Report #1 from the HMC Assessment Committee. In that report the Committee suggests that there is strong evidence indicating that we do not achieve one of our principal mission concepts, "understanding the impact of our work on society." While I cannot agree that the Committee's two surveys actually deliver this conclusion convincingly, I have little doubt that the college does a poor job of addressing this aspect of our traditional mission.
During our Faculty Meeting, this Thursday, we will be asked to vote on Part 2 of the Assessment Committee's Policy document. This will implicitly reaffirm the college's mission, including the statement, above. The question, then, is how we can do a better job of addressing this goal and who is responsible for implementing it.
Since we imagine that the problem lies in a lack of integrative studies, we recently moved toward repairing this situation by requiring an Integrative Experience. That will certainly be helpful, but it is very far, in my opinion, from addressing the real issue. That "real issue" is not a matter of integration; it is a matter of ideology and a real failure of critical independence.
Let us seriously face the fact that there is no way to understand the impact of our work on society without, in fact, looking very thoroughly and critically at the way(s) we do our work. How -- that is, through what institutions --- do we practice science and engineering nationally and globally today? In asking this question, we need to prepare to be critical of government agencies, corporate enterprises, and even higher education itself. And we need to have the capacity to imagine that we can take paths other than those that seem obvious or that will add to someone's wealth or that seem to represent "progress" just because "we can."
Unfortunately, we seem to be so completely dependent upon government and corporate institutions for both the education of scientists and engineers as well as for the practice of these professions that we have lost most of our ability to be seriously critical. My fear is that we will merely spin our wheels dealing with this in "assessment" and trying new "curricula" and thus forgive ourselves our failure to address the sticky ideological mess in which we find ourselves.
Let's face it. We will never resolve our problems with the college mission until we demonstrate a willingness to adopt a posture of intellectual and moral independence from which we can function critically and imaginatively toward the roles of science and engineering in our society.
What Does Our Mission Mean?
The mission of Harvey Mudd College has always included the concept of exercising some form of social responsibility for technology. Usually, this has been couched in the idea that our students will not only study and pursue careers in engineering, mathematics, and science but that they will also study in the humanities and the social sciences with the special purpose of gaining insight into "the impact of their work on society."
Having taught at HMC for 37 years precisely because of this mission, I find myself progressively discouraged by what I have gradually seen as our failure to achieve it. In fact, what concerns me today is the feeling that we have not only failed to achieve our mission, for a variety of practical reasons, but that we have not even seriously engaged it at the level of asking what it really means and, hence, what it implies about practice.
Why would a college embrace a mission through so many years and yet ignore its meaning and fail to implement it? The answer, it seems to me, has largely been driven by our anxiousness for "success" and, in particular, the fact that "success" has been measured by placement of our graduates. In order to place our graduates, we have always been driven to embrace the mainstream American technological community and the overarching economic system that it feeds. For more than two decades this mainstream was dominated, in fact, by the military-industrial complex that, to a large measure, had inspired the mission statement in the first place. In spite of our mission, we did very little, as a community, to develop critical thinking about the arms race or to help students find alternative careers in the application of science and engineering. So long as our graduates fit naturally into the mainstream mold and were accepted with enthusiasm by our nation's top employers we were happy. The college can (and does) point to thousands of fine people who have done well in America's advanced technological society. It is especially eager to point to a number of graduates who have become entrepreneurs.
The question, of course, is whether such a wholehearted embrace of mainstream American technology and enterprise is actually what the mission means and implies about action. Doesn't the mission, at the very least, mean learning to exercise some degree of critical scrutiny. In particular, doesn't it mean learning how to construct our own opinions and beliefs about how science should be used in our society and how engineering design should be applied? Why should students develop a clear understanding of the impact of their work on society if they do not intend to use these insights and, instead, they simply accept at face value what the established institutions tell us and pay us to do.
While the college as a whole has failed, in this regard, I see no part of our program that is a more dramatic failure than the clinics. Here is a model real-world experience in the "educated" practice of science and engineering a la Harvey Mudd and where in it lies the practice of our mission? How does it exemplify what our educational program means? Where does it rise above merely absorbing the norms of worldly technology as indoctrination, a final apprenticeship? In fact, we are missing a tremendous opportunity here because this is precisely where we might be able to demonstrate, in real life, what an HMC education ought to mean.
Does Harvey Mudd College really care about asking serious critical questions about the impact of technology on our society? Are we finally successful enough that we can risk taking some views contrary to mainstream American technological enterprise or are we such a firmly entrenched part of that world that we are simply frozen into replicating it? Do we dare produce independently thinking graduates who make critical choices in choosing among career options? Choices based on more than money, power, and lifestyle? Shouldn't our graduates question the merits of a proposed project rather than merely jumping to work when beckoned?
One of my concerns about the newly proposed mission statement (see below) is that, in dropping the word "impact," it may have become so ambiguous about criticism that this dimension of our ideals may become permanently lost. A free and critical mind is what comes with the liberal arts, of course; and the complexity of problems in the 21st century requires redefinition of problems as well as their solution. But how many people will see this? I guess the tension is no longer quite so obvious.
"Harvey Mudd College, the liberal arts college of engineering, science, and mathematics, prepares exceptionally able young women and men to lead in solving the complex scientific, technological, and social problems of the 21st century while enjoying full and productive lives."
I believe that the mission of the college is crucial to the ways in which we plan for the future. I also believe that the college's mission is our chief "marketing tool." If we know what our mission is, then we can attract people (both students and faculty) to become involved and we can convince donors that we do something here that is worthy of their interest and support.
The problem, I think, is that our mission has become sadly neglected. The statement itself has become encrusted in dust and the passion behind it has faded into a complacent allegiance to an old idea. I would like to see our mission renewed; most of all, I would like to see us re-discover something in Harvey Mudd College that again expresses a passionate need.
There was a passionate need in the late 1950s, when Harvey Mudd College was being created. In that time, the world of science and engineering was still heavily conditioned by the experiences of WWII, only ten years past. Scientists and engineers had become thoroughly involved in the "war effort" which included, of course, the Manhattan Project. Creation of nuclear weaponry was, to put it mildly, a "wakeup call" to people in the technical professions, though it was by-no-means alone in wartime experiences. What came out of this "wakeup call" was the realization that scientists and engineers should not allow themselves to become simple-minded tools of massive political or economic regimes. They must be educated to think through the human and social ramifications of their work; they must be able to argue through their own responsibilities in newly created situations; and they must be fully ready to engage with the social and political world around them, equipped with a sense of history, with political sensitivity, and with a strong sense of human values. This is a need that we felt passionately. Most of the people who became leaders at Harvey Mudd -- the president, the department chairs, and many of the faculty -- had relevant personal experiences.
Thus, Harvey Mudd's curriculum, with its strong emphasis on humanities and social sciences (originally one third of the required courses) and its generalist, design-oriented engineering, was a dramatic attempt to change the world of science and engineering education. The mission guided curriculum planning; it was effective in attracting students and faculty; and it was an attractive endeavor to donors. Today, however, we have largely forgotten WWII, and the reduction in tension between the US and the Soviet Union has allowed us to forget the enormous arsenals of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear and biochemical weapons that scientists and engineers of both nations have given to the world. In spite of occasional periods of national conflict and military activity, American society has become largely complacent about dramatic world issues and has become immersed in an economy of domestic production and consumption. Generally speaking, anxiety about nuclear fallout has been replaced with anxiety about stock markets, lifelong careers, and securing a competitive potential in a society of consumerism. If breadth of learning is really relevant to education, today, it is no longer obvious how or why. It is doubtful that anything in this program kindles passion.
The problem with strategic planning at Harvey Mudd, today, is the fact that we have lost any strong reason for existence. We find ourselves, instead, competing with all other science and engineering schools more and more on their terms, no longer on any unique terms of our own. Not even the shear quantity of humanities and social sciences is a major factor today. So far as I can tell, there is little that distinguishes us at the level of goals. We simply propose to do a better job of achieving essentially the same ends, namely, the promotion of individual careers in the sciences and in engineering. I think that, in certain respects and for certain kinds of students, we do in fact accomplish a better job. But convincing people of this is definitely taking us to the ragged edge and straining our imagination.
Is there a solution? If there is, it must lie in the sphere of restoring a sense of passion about what we do and having a strong conception of what we promise to achieve that is both meaningful and different from what our competitors achieve. But is there such an adventure before us?
There is, in fact, one thing I believe we should feel passionate about; indeed, it presents us with a tremendous educational opportunity. So far as I can see, we are presently behind in recognizing this opportunity; but I believe that we are well equipped to take possession of it and become the leader in establishing it in technical curricula. I will outline what I mean very briefly below.
In a mere two years, we will cross the threshold into the 21st century. I expect that we will do this with great fanfare and little insight. What insight would bring, were we to examine national behaviors, is the fact that we will not emerge from the 21st century looking anything like what we are today. World population will double before this century is even half through. If apathy continues, world population will double again before the century closes. Furthermore, there is excellent evidence to suggest that the earth does not have the "carrying capacity" to deal with 20 billion human beings --- especially not, if they think, as they seem to think (globally) now, that they can continue to increase consumption indefinitely. The world, in other words, is going to be forced to design new ways of inhabiting earth. I use the word "design" consciously because I believe science and engineering will be essential parts of this dramatic process. I also believe, however, that science and engineering will not be practiced in the 21st century as they are today. They will have to be guided by radically new approaches to human technology.
In short, I see that our mission should continue but it should become guided by a passionate need to create revolutionary science and engineering thinking, the
kind of technical leadership that the world will have to possess soon, that is, the kind of leadership that deals imaginatively with the task of sustaining human
communities within a diverse natural world.