Today I lunched with a professor from one of those old-line, prestigious universities. He bemoaned the fact that his department has changed.
“It was previously focussed on practical engineering. We produced the leading engineers, those of great names, who advanced the science and practice of engineering. Now the department is ruled by the theoreticians: those who would abolish the laboratory and replace it with computer models. They have never felt a soil, put it between their teeth, or distinguished a clay from a slit. It is all that Cam Clay stuff taken to extremes.”
I sympathized with him. Poor old fellow! Lost in past glories! Out of touch, in his ivory tower, with the reality of commerce.
“No problem,” I said. “Let your professors delve deep into theory. They are no good for the real world. Although we need to support deep theoretical research. The practitioners will come from the second and third tier universities.”
He was offended for he came from a time when his type universities produced graduates who practiced the art of engineering: the application of the principles of science in the art of engineering.
“I have great faith,” I said, “in the ability of second and third grade engineers to solve the problems of the real world.”
He challenged me.
“I used to lecture at university. I lectured on road and pavement design. I knew nothing of the subject, accept the theory. One day on route to the new Jwaneng Diamond Mine in Botswana, I stopped along the newly constructed road for a smoke. A truck roared to a stop beside me. Out stepped a former student. I asked him what he was doing. He replied that he had designed the road and was now in charge of its construction.”
“What do you know of road design?” I asked him.
“Everything you taught me at university.” his reply. He expanded: “You taught me pavement design; you gave me the principles of sub-base strength; you taught me about soil compaction; and you lectured in a most entertaining fashion about road geometry. Now I apply what you taught me to this great new road to a new mine.”
I was humble and silent.
My point is made. We need the theoreticians and their unreadable papers. Some actually advance ideas and practice. Support those name-brand universities. Even if you cannot understand their papers, replete with convoluted equations.
But more important, support those other universities and their students. Those with no name-brand who nevertheless produce intelligent, practical engineers who build things and improve our lives.