We Don’t Teach Much

“In this way you must understand how laughable it is to say, ‘Tell me what to do!’ What advice could I possibly give? No, a far better request is, ‘Train my mind to adapt to any circumstance’….In this way, if circumstances take you off script…you won’t be desperate for a new prompting.”

Epictetus, Discourses

I ran across this quote from the early 2nd century Stoic philosopher Epictetus the other day (“The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday). It reminded me that in engineering education we can’t possibly teach all the information and facts that one might need after graduation. In chemical engineering, for example, there are thousands of different chemicals, types of equipment, different processes for making so many different products. There are different methods for various pharmaceuticals, papers, metals, solvents, plastics, toothpaste, and the list goes on without end. There is a 27 volume Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology that covers many topics in chemical engineering, but even that has its limitations, even if some superhuman could actually learn everything in it. Forty-five years after starting a chemical engineering program in university and I’m still learning new things every week.

So no, we can’t teach everything an engineer might eventually need to know. We probably can’t even teach a small fraction of what people will eventually know or need to use. So we have to focus on training the engineer’s mind. How to approach problems, how to break them down into logical and manageable pieces. How to understand the science behind new situations. How to recognize the limitations of their skills and knowledge, and how they can address those knowledge gaps (it’s important to know what you don’t know!).

So when students of all sorts ask “why do we have to learn this, when are we ever going to use it?”, the answer may well be “possibly never”. But it’s part of the training of the mind, which definitely will get used eventually.

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