Rensselaer Alumni Magazine - Fall 2012 - (Page 46)
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“Knowledge and Thoroughness”
A look back at Rensselaer’s pragmatic approach to education |
BY JEFF G. BOHN ’68
THROUGHOUT MY CAREER, I HAVE seen things go best for both projects and careers when proper knowledge was brought to bear and applied with thoroughness and diligence. It’s not too much to say that the principal contributors to success in any endeavor are the personal qualities of knowledge and thoroughness. I first encountered those words together in the seal of the college that shaped my professional life. The motto dates to 1904, when Rensselaer president and director Palmer Ricketts, Class of 1875, responded to a request from alumni for a crest they could display to represent the college. Into this crest Ricketts inserted two words that, as he later wrote, “seemed to cover two characteristics developed by the Institute course.” Amos Eaton, RPI’s founding professor, believed that knowledge was incomplete without application and experience to perfect it. Founder Stephen Van Rensselaer agreed, and Eaton structured his courses with extensive laboratory experiments, field work, and classroom teaching by the students. Benjamin Franklin Greene, Class of 1842, continued and enlarged Eaton’s vision. As director in 1851, he added “Polytechnic” to “Rensselaer Institute,” reflecting his passion for a true poly-technic curriculum featuring a broad range of integrated, tightly focused courses that preserved Eaton’s emphasis on application and experience. It would take another half century before Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey developed a philosophy known as pragmatism that provided a theoretical framework for the educational approach
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Eaton, Van Rensselaer, and Greene had arrived at empirically. Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, argued that the effects of an object are part of the whole of it. In other words, knowledge of an object is incomplete until it is experimented upon. James, interested in “truth,” believed that “true ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify.” Dewey, the great educational theorist, wrote in 1903 that “…there is no way to know what are the traits of known objects… save by referring to the operations of getting, using, and testing evidence—the processes of knowledge-getting.” From a student’s perspective, the discussion relates to the difference between reading the chapter and doing the problems at the end, or the lab experiments. Every student has experienced the temptation to close the book at the end of the text and feel confident in his understanding of the subject. But every student also learns, eventually, that he only gains full knowledge of the material when he is challenged to “get, use, and test evidence,” to experience the effects of boundary conditions, to see the meaning of a theory from different perspectives, to recognize dependent and independent variables, and to learn the art of making simplifying assumptions. It is in the dreaded assignments to prove, show, or derive that the real learning takes place. In the engineering world, there
is no greater instantiation of pragmatism’s mandate to “know…the traits of known objects” than in verification testing of engineered systems. Every engineered object is unknown until it is tested, because it is about the object’s function that we must gather knowl-
edge. George Low ’48, who served as director of spacecraft development for the Apollo program and later became president of the Institute, wrote in 1971 that “…the single most important factor leading to the high degree of reliability of the Apollo spacecraft was the tremendous depth and breadth of the test activity.” Experimentation provided knowledge about how the systems functioned and assurance that the functions provided were the functions desired. Thoroughness in this is vital. Low wrote that there was “one overriding consideration that stands out above all the others: Attention to detail. Painstaking attention to detail…by all people, at all levels.” Eaton, Greene, and Ricketts would have
been proud of this tribute to knowledge and thoroughness! Today’s times are no more transformational than Eaton’s. His pragmatic methodology remains valid. The fundamental objective remains to “apply science to the common purposes of life” by creating experienceintensive curricula fully to develop the necessary knowledge. A contemporary of Dewey, English pragmatist F.C.S. Schiller, wrote in 1907 that, “In validating our claims to truth, we discover realities...and… transform them by our cognitive efforts, thereby proving our desires and ideas to be real forces in the shaping of the world.” How in keeping with Rensselaer’s heritage, then, is the Institute’s tagline, “Why not change the world?” With a pragmatic curriculum following Eaton and Greene, supported by the pragmatic philosophy articulated by Peirce and Dewey, we will indeed change the world: “knowledge and thoroughness” is change itself. Jeff Bohn ’68 majored in aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer and served as project manager for many aerospace, energy, and systems engineering programs in several organizations. He retired in 2007 as a Lockheed Martin Fellow after specializing in the development and integration of requirements for large aerospace systems. He lives in Malvern, Pa.
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rensselaer Alumni Magazine - Fall 2012
Rensselaer Alumni Magazine - Fall 2012
Lighting Up the Aviation Industry
Energy and the Environment
One Last Thing
Rensselaer Alumni Magazine - Fall 2012