the belief in many engineers and apparently some physicists that they are world-class experts in any field, or would be if they thought about it for 10 minutes… I don’t really have any clear idea why engineers tend to be the most anti-science and anti-knowledge of the educated professions.
It’s a good thing that Lee is a physicist, because in the arena of inter-discipline mudslinging, an intra-discipline source-quote is like a lovely big umbrella. You might have to swing it about a bit, but it keeps you protected. It’s too bad he doesn’t have an engineer co-author.
The primary reason Lee cites for this attitude is the perceived hierarchy between disciplines. Physicists and engineers use specialised skills — that is, skills not taught at school, nor accessible by those taught at school. Therefore, there’s an aura of intellectual exoticism and mystique about their discipline, the impression that its pearly gates open only for a special few. (Indeed, this mystique is a large part of the charm of even terribly irrational science fiction. They’re the sneaky back-door entries into realms we’re convinced we’d never be let into. Despite the dissuasion of Dan Brown’s writing, it was this ignorant fascination that carried me through Digital Fortress.)
Mike, on the other hand, speculates about form. Engineering, he says, is structured around quantitatively resolvable questions, all of which have definite answers. Being trained for this environment makes it difficult for most engineers to deal with the unpredictable behaviour of multiple interactive variables in the real world (some say economists suffer from the same affliction, without the benefit of the same causes).
What Lee and Mike leave out — and what I think is the most important aspect of this dismissive, know-it-all, pro-ignorance conservative attitude — is the demography of, and grooming for, these disciplines. I assume this is because things are very different in the US. In India, however, a BTech — Bachelor’s degree in Technology — is the consolidated epitome of everything a young man desires, and his family desires for him. It brings permanent employment in a thriving sector, sponsored work-trips to the developed world (industry term: ‘on sites’), and excellent romantic/marital eligibility. Therefore no sacrifice is too much, and no work too hard, for that ultimate inclusion into the Engineer Club.
NOTE: Thanks to gender thingummies and the deep desire not to starve in an ambush-economy, India also produces an enormous number of female engineers, but their presence hasn’t made the slightest dint in the masculine aspirational narrative of Engineering in India.
The path to a BTech starts when one is fourteen, and in Class 9. The child has two years to prepare for his first Board exams (O-levels) and do so dazzlingly well in them that even the best schools wouldn’t be able to refuse him the Science track for his Plus Twos. Plus Twos are the two final years of school, devoted to prepping for the second and final Board exams (A-levels). The Science track would allow a student to take advanced Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and either Computer Programming or Biology, plus two compulsory languages. Almost all students have after-school private tuitions in all these subjects, because schools cannot be depended upon to do the teaching thing. During this period, they also have to study separately for the competitive entrance exams to engineering colleges and medical schools, and plenty of students study for and take both, because they want their careers to be ‘safe’. Sleep is negotiable, free time non-existent, and social lives conducted between tuition classes and via text.
All this culminates into a clockwork boost in urban tourism after the Class 12 Board exams (A levels), as flocks of children and their parents do the nation-wide entrance-exam circuit. After that, successful students are piled into gender-segregated boarding colleges for four years. Those lucky — or unlucky — enough to have made it to colleges within commuting distance continue to live at home, reproducing the cramming pattern of the last four years, but with more going out, late-blooming, girlfriends, sneaky-porn, cigarettes and alcohol.
The problem with this picture, ironically, is its success. For many bright — or hard-working — boys from geographical and social peripheries, a BTech is an excellent way of accessing both greater social capital and urban modernity, although in this case, only in its economic and consumerist avatar. Because one thing that the masculinity and rigour of this discipline helps maintain is a strong authoritarian patriarchal culture amongst most of its graduates. Post graduation, this is reinforced by the arranged marriage market, where engineers with corporate jobs or in PhD programmes are prime matrimonial products (the straitened means of PhD students are compensated by their location in the lands of plenty).
Why is this pattern of voluntary self-repression worrying? It is worrying is because my culture grants immense social and intellectual capital to male BTech graduates, without equipping them with tools to comprehend or analyse the political, cultural or economic realities we live in. They’re highly trained in one very specialised area, at the cost of almost all others. Anecdata: nearly all of the many engineers I know consume culture through mainstream films, prime-time news shows, and bestseller book lists (the latest text inspiring collective BTech and MBA orgasms is The Secret, by Rhonda Bryne). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but those are also excellent tools for manipulating public opinion. It is telling that Anna Hazare’s overtly-patriotic moral authoritarianism was supported in many engineering campuses and opposed in many social science centres, frequently on the same campus. Incidentally, these campuses are also, like many boarding schools for boys, centres of homophobia, casual misogyny (‘ragging’ new female *and* male students far too often become sexual assault and rape), cheerleaders for desi libertarianism — which is deeply ironic, since our best engineering colleges are state-supported — and support-bases for aggressive, social-media-propagated, go-get-’em patriotism.
In many ways, the BTech grads’ grooming is in perfect sync with Hazare and his ilk’s arrogance, sourced from a complete inability to access different points of view. Boys who have been coddled and plied and pampered pre-entrance — and this is a dominant majority of BTech aspirants, because they carry the dreams and expectations of their entire families on their shoulders — showered with approval and envy through college, and praised far and wide after landing a MNC job or a PhD position in the US, are not equipped to handle dissent, or the possibility of ignorance. And what better way to brandish denial than dismiss and mock those that one doesn’t understand, especially if it threatens the dismantle the comfortable reality one has slaved since one’s teenage for?