‘The Learning Gulf’ by John Wooding

The Learning Gulf

It has been about a week now.  BP has its finger in the dike, and the seabed is strangely silent.  I almost miss that Live Feed (Live! Crude! Oil!).  On TV the oil looked, oddly, like some underwater dust storm.  Maybe it is over.  Maybe not. Now in China the seas are turning black.

OK —  so maybe there are lessons about the lessons here.  Sure, we know that technology fails sometimes.  Thanks to BP we also know about human error and corporate greed, about eleven dead workers, oil-soaked birds, dying turtles and all the folks whose livelihoods may never return.  In all of this I was thinking about the engineers, managers, designers, corporate liaisons and the folks who had the audacity to stab the earth deep down, as far below as your average jet flies above.  I am also thinking about the rest us and our complicity in this: our need to jack the oil into our collective veins so we can get to Stop and Shop in our SUVs or have the convenience of plastics and a cranked-up air conditioner.  We could do better, much better.  And we could do things differently.  But doing better and different goes far beyond figuring out what went wrong — the failed designs, the lack of regulatory oversight, and the corners cut — it means teaching all the would-be engineers, managers, corporate types and, yes, we citizens, the costs of what we do in the world.  

Perhaps, if we taught people better about all the aspects and consequences of things like this, we might be more equipped to understand our limitations and to know that audacity has its price.  This goes way beyond catastrophe as a “teaching moment,” and should lead us to thinking about how we educate in this country.  In our universities and community colleges we still focus too much on training in a discipline, asking that students get the in-depth knowledge to gain the skills that will get them a job — to be computer programmers and structural engineers, accountants, paralegals, and managers.  Yes, skills are important and so are jobs, but we do not ask often enough how we could create a curriculum that speaks to these needs, but that does not ignore the complexity and balance of life and progress, technology and economic development, community and social justice, caring for the planet and having a decent standard of living.  Radically reorganizing how we think about knowledge and understanding, turning courses on “Intro to Whatever” into a curriculum built around themes and problems, could do so much to educate our young people that there are no soundbite answers to complex problems. 

We need to create a new generation of thinkers (yes, and doers) who appreciate that knowledge-and-understanding does not come in neat packages in a 15-week semester that are designed to be regurgitated (and all too often forgotten) in a final exam.  Doing this would go way beyond required courses in ethics or humanities or tacked-on lectures on social consciousness.  It would demand a complete rethinking of the curriculum of our institutions of learning.  An education that truly integrated the best we have from biology and physics, engineering and history, politics and management, economics and sociology.  This has been done in some places.  An interdisciplinary, actively engaging education focused around disasters like the Gulf (think Titanic, Challenger, Katrina) or more chronic problems and issues (global warming, fair trade, medical technologies) or, God forbid, students and faculty working with the community to solve local problems, could do so much more than we now do to educate a future generation.  A university or college could really then become a “steward of place.”  Of many places.  Perhaps then, those who go on to act in the world would really have the tools to understand all the consequences of what they do.  Yeah, this would require a revolution in how we think about education — but watching the earth bleed into the sea makes me think that we have an opportunity to use this moment to ask some really hard questions about how we understand what we do in the world and why, sometimes, we don’t.


— John Wooding, 7/23/10

One Response to ‘The Learning Gulf’ by John Wooding

  1. Bob Forrant says:

    Well said John Wooding. And, ironically enough, the UMass Lowell provost has decided -using a set of remarkably bogus arguments – to get rid of the single academic department that actually tried to think about and do things in the ways detailed in this very thoughtful post. And, for full disclosure John and I taught in the Dept of Regional Economic and Social Development, a department that thought about its curriculum in an all-sided way and prepared its students to figure things out from a variety of vantage points.

    Disassembled by the university, the faculty scattered to several different departments, we lose the capacity to collaborate as in the past. But, then, why have an academic dept that focuses on sustainable regional development – – the economy is doing so well these days anyway, right?

    The dept. existed for fourteen years and now if you visit the university’s web site all of its work- the books faculty published, the millions of dollars in grants brought in, the mention of graduate students who’ve gone on to top notch doctoral programs, the jobs our grads are holding – has been disappeared from the university’s public face. Instead there is a watered down program in regional development that is a pale pretender to the real thing! So sad; so mystifying.