Moving Beyond Paideia: Learning for Earning


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The easy and sometimes only way we have to react to a problem is to criticize, carp and blame. A citizen may be declaring her disgust over the result of a government social engineering initiative, or a consumer may be slamming a poorly engineered consumer product that costs too much or is unreliable. The citizen and consumer have several tools in their respective toolboxes to register their disfavor. In a free society, freedom of the press and free speech are two of those important tools. It has been said that the antidote to irresponsible or ill-founded free speech is contained in more free speech. In an authoritarian-based society, the wrong free speech often leads to the tag of not being a team player or, worse, becoming an enemy of the state.

Another more direct tool of change for the citizens living in countries with a republican (note the small “r”) form of government, where elected representatives are charged with doing the will of the people, is the individual’s vote.

The United Kingdom is technically a constitutional monarchy. However, it is a representative republic in the sense that an elected parliament is charged with doing the will of the people—the queen is a traditional symbol with no law-making authority. Last month, the world watched as citizens in the U.K. voted directly in a referendum to be extricated from the European Union—a vote that directly rebuked the members of parliament they had elected to represent them. Here in the states, Mr. Jefferson would be pleased. He believed in the collective wisdom of the people. He recognized that the people will make errors in judgment from time to time, but if left free would correct those errors. Jefferson’s nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, believed that the people were the beast, and it was the government’s job to control the beast.

Thomas Jefferson believed that education is what transformed the beast into productive citizens who could govern themselves. He had a fervent belief in each man’s education as a necessary component in the success of the American experiment in self-government.

In a free society, vigorous verbal and written discourse, whether in our role as citizens or consumers, are important tools in affecting change. In 1839, the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” In 2016, social media has created an ether of sorts that has many of us wallowing and flailing about in a big data soup that permeates our existence. In an ironic way we are confronted with a new challenge: there is so much data to wade through, much of it from dubious sources, that we are confronted with the task of separating the wheat from the chaff. As we used to say in the seventies “Is it real or is it Memorex™?” In today’s world of big data it’s often difficult to know what’s real and what’s not. How do we establish the veracity of what we are reading, or the goodness of the data we use to determine a cause and effect relationship—remember red wine as a preventer of heart disease or eggs as a cause of heart disease—for all those years, all wrong!

Big data in high-tech electronic product assembly provide a similar challenge. How do we decide what variable data are significant in controlling the process. Huge amounts of real time data are available. We need to understand the physics and statistics involved in the process to construct an assembly operation’s infrastructure that will best maximize yields and minimize rework. Design of experiments (DOE) is a useful tool, as are process capability studies. The point is that this is undergraduate level engineering work. These skills need to be taught during a person’s post-secondary educational process.

At one time, we called the ability to criticize and persuade the skill of rhetoric. This skill was actually taught in schools—not so much anymore unless you are studying to be a lawyer. This course has been replaced by classes such as diversity training and learning how not to hurt other people’s feelings. And, the word rhetoric has taken on a pejorative meaning, connoting pretentiousness or empty talk.

Civics and diplomacy were taught at one time, as well. These subjects gave us an understanding of how our government worked and how to criticize a policy we disagreed with in a civilized (civil) way, but without the need to pull any punches. In the real world or even on college campuses (purportedly the sanctuary of free and diverse thought), this art form has been largely replaced with ad hominem attacks meant to destroy our adversary, personally as well as politically. Or, the opposite: such extreme political correctness, we fear our words being termed as a micro-aggression as much as we fear a terrorist act. Further, what we once called stereotyping—the assigning of characteristics and behaviors across groups, not an individual’s behaviorwe have added the appellation of identity politics. Our positions on issues are now defined by others, using the demographic groups we occupy: economic, class, religion, ethnicity, etc., as the bucket in which we are placed. Finally, while our educational system tries to teach us to raise the level of our argument, not the level of our voice, our society has embraced a win at all costs objective. Just look at today’s sports landscape: Cheating is okay as long as you don’t get caught. Why? Well, everybody does it, don’t they? This is the antithesis of virtue. As a culture and a society, embracing this sort of anything goes world-view puts us on the slippery slope to perdition. Here, Mr. Jefferson would be deeply concerned as he recognized that virtue was a necessary individual quality needed for the survival of self-government. To close the loop: each individual’s liberal (note the small “l”) education was one vehicle to each individual’s virtue. Individual virtue permitted self-government, and self-government permitted an individual’s liberal education. (As opposed to an authoritarian education where you learned, or were reeducated, to what the state wanted you to learn—purportedly, for the benefit of the collective—ah, Utopia!)

How about the private-product sector?

What is the most important weapon available to consumers in the private product sector? It’s one that’s analogous to their vote as citizens on the government side. It’s the power of their purse in a competitive free market. You’ve probably heard the expression “I vote with my feet.” In other words, as consumers we have traditionally addressed product discontent in the market sector by simply not buying the product. Now we can add to rejection at the cash register, sharing our view with the world through on-line product reviews.

The closest we come as citizens to “not buying the product” in the government sector is in the voting booth.

Just look at the current U.S. election year spectacle in which we are immersed and it doesn’t take long to conclude that the candidates are long on criticizing and short on solutions. Ah, politics!

But what if we change the role we play from a product consumer to product developer or assembler. We are given the direct responsibility for designing a product, solving problems associated with a product or creating and maintaining an assembly process that exceeds the consumers’ expectations both in price and performance—like the role many of us play or have played in the companies we work for. Whether we work for an OPD or an EMS, we have a direct impact in the performance and cost of those products.

One of the reassuring things about science and technology is its language. Unlike politics, mathematics does not prevaricate. The assumptions and work forming the context in which mathematics is used may be faulty, but the mathematics itself is unassailable.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the August 2016 issue of SMT Magazine, click here.

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