Worcester Polytechnic Institute

A Planning Program for Worcester Polytechnic Institute: The Future of Two Towers - Part Four: A Plan


A. Introduction

Since December of 1968 there has been an intensive effort to develop long range goals and plans for the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. There have been four major phases to the work: establishing the present status of the College, establishing an educational philosophy of the needs of contemporary society (See references (1) and (2)), establishing an educational program in skeletal form consistent with the philosophy (3), and refining the Plan presented in this report for final action by the College community. A history and synopses of the earlier phases are found in APPENDICES A and B.

This chapter is divided into the following sections: Educational Philosophy, The Student, The Professional Schools, The Privately Endowed College, Technological and Scientific Education and Human Need, and Characteristics of the Desired Program.

B. Educational Philosophy

Higher education in general and the professional schools in particular have always faced the problem of balancing education and training. The technical school, of which WPI is a prime example, had its beginnings in the replacement of apprenticeship by schooling and was, therefore, strongly vocationally oriented (4). Even now, when the acceleration of change in technology makes specific training obsolete shortly after graduation, decisions in technology are based on specifics--detailed, hard information, and experience.

The word "education" probably has as many different meanings as there are individuals who have attempted to articulate its definition. There are, however, certain characteristics of the educated person on which there seems to be agreement. The educated person can cope with changes in environment, learn by himself, and analyze the unfamiliar situation. The educated person is aware of the rewards and possible disappointments of a maximum effort and is sensitive to interactions with other people. To these characteristics Arthur C. Clarke (5) would add, "An educated person is never bored."

The acceleration of technological advance and the vital role played by the technologist in the environment in which we live has forced the professional school to recognize that its graduates must have a broader view than that of the trained technologist alone. Whitehead, in discussing the role of the university, has said, "So far as the mere imparting of information is concerned, no university has had any justification for existence since the popularisation of printing in the fifteenth century. The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning. The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively. At least this is the function which it should perform for society. A university which fails in this respect has no reason for existence." (6)

It is clear that there is a dual purpose for higher education which is the very basis of the "Two Towers" tradition at WPI. It cannot be ignored. The problem is to fuse the two purposes into a program which satisfies the needs of the students. It is too simple, however, to say that there is merely a problem of balance. Students are not all alike. In any case, the temporal nature of "training" means that the training aspects of higher education must lean much more heavily on analysis of problems than on how to do specific things.

C. The Student

A cursory examination of the daily news items will quickly reveal that there are major differences in the character of the current college student compared with that of twenty years ago. Physiologically speaking, he has been adult for a longer time. Sociologically speaking, the age at which individuals become functioning members of society is increasing. In former years the very act of attending college gave some adult recognition; today it does not. Thus, the period of adolescence has been extended (7), and today's college student must contend not only with his studies but also with the problem of being recognized as an adult. The student has the impression that the affluence of and penchant for organization by society have led to an established sequence of events which he must follow to become adult--a sequence which is the same for all, regardless of physical or emotional make-up. Such a pattern of up-bringing takes the fun and individuality out of growing up, and school becomes another "must" instead of an opportunity.

As a result of extended adolescence, the young person is, sometimes desperately, seeking a way to be recognized as an individual--an adult. This accounts for much of the behavior which adults deplore. Yet, most of this behavior has the effect of further isolating the young person from the adulthood he seeks. What is needed is responsibility rather than protection, and manners rather than morals The protection, to the student, is the chain that binds him to his parents. Legislation of morals has always been ridiculous, but good manners in the form of respect for others is characteristic of an educated person.

D. The Professional Schools

Teachers in the professional schools are aware of their successful students who, after graduation, do not live up to the promise they had shown as students. They are also aware of the unsuccessful or mediocre student who achieves success. This awareness becomes more startling in view of the studies of Hoyt (8) as reported by Jencks and Riesman (9). While one would expect a correlation between grades earned in school and success in later life, Hoyt found little correlation between course grades in the professional schools and occupational success.

Yet, it is clear that students do learn something in the professional schools. The 15 years of the U. S. space program and the ability of the scientist and engineer, in cooperation with industry, to create material convenience are strong testimonials for technical education in particular.

It would seem, therefore, that the usual evaluations of academic progress are either poor measures of what is being taught or measure something irrelevant to the practice of the profession. The evaluation of students by a system randomly related to actual professional prog- ress must have a repressive effect on their morale It is clear that the professional schools must adopt some new method of evaluating the progress of their students.

E. The Privately Endowed College

The purpose of the independent college has been the subject of many thoughtful writings, but one conclusion dominates all others: the major contribution of the independent college is to leaven the national education scene with diversification and a source of innova- tive energy which lies beyond the capability of public institutions. 'If the independent colleges do not really provide diversity, do not really provide a choice, but develop as privately-financed carbon copies of the publicly-managed institutions, then they will fail in the first important part of their mission; if they fail to innovate, they will fail in the second.

F. Technological and Scientific Education and Human Need

Society is being well-supplied with technologists and scientists who, given time and money, can eventually solve nearly any techno- logical problem from development of an anti-polio vaccine to placing a man on the moon safely. However, decisions as to what technology should be developed and what problems attacked are usually made by the businessman, the politician, and the lawyer who are, for the most part, unaware of the nature of technology itself. This has led to technological development based on immediate desire and possibility, and the results have been astoundingly "successful.'' While there are notable exceptions among scientists and engineers, the human consequences of the explosion of effort in science and technology have usually been ignored by the technologist himself. The purely technological aspects of any particular problem may have complex interactions; the human aspects of the problems add another whole range of complexity.

It seems unlikely that there is any possibility of those who presently concentrate entirely on humanistic studies developing a sufficient interest in science and technology to make a really successful attack on the problems. It is more likely that a reasoned solution can be obtained by alloying the quantitative, analytical emphasis of technological education with an understanding of human values. If the technologist and the humanist cannot be brought together, our society may well be inundated by its own technology or may reject technology altogether. There is, then, a need for an individual thoroughly familiar with the analytical approach to problem solving of the technologist who is also sensitive to and understanding of human nature.

G. Characteristics of the Desired Program

The desired program should meet two basic objectives.

First, education is for the student and should be designed to bring the entering student to informed adulthood in a way commensurate with his needs and progress. This means that, to the greatest extent possible, the responsibility for the student's life style and for his becoming educated must rest with himself. Further, the program should be framed so that with responsibility and the freedom it implies must go accountability,

Second, whatever quantitative criterion is used to determine the awarding of the degree, that criterion must be based primarily on the ability of the student to meet the stated educational Goal of the College. It is in this area that the student and the College are accountable--the student for meeting the requirements, and the College for establishing and protecting the quality of the degree.

There are several other characteristics which are particularly important with respect to WPI as an independent college of engineering and science:

a. The program must be flexible enough to accommodate the varying backgrounds, needs, and maturities of the students.

b. The program should be innovative enough to justify its being undertaken by an independent college.

c. The program--but more important, the entire atmosphere of the College--should promote a community of spirit. In order to assist the student as much as possible in his intellectual growth, the student must find about him a group of people who are learning-- and enjoying it. Obviously, this community of spirit is as important for the faculty as for the students.

d. The program should be devised so that science and technology are intimately related to the humanities, the social sciences, and to each other. Society needs technological specialists and generalists who are also concerned about human need, and so does WPI.


(1) The Future of Two Towers, WPI, March 1969.
(2) The Future of Two Towers, Part II, WPI, July 1969.
(3) The Future of Two Towers Part III: A Model, WPI, September 1969.
(4) Jencks, C. and David Riesman, The Academic Revolution, p. 199, Doubleday, New York (1968).
(5) Clarke, A. C., address to the WPI community, November 1969.
(6) Whitehead, A. N., The Aims of Education, Mentor by arrangement with MacMillan, New York (1949).
(7) Higgins, George, personal communication, December (1969).
(8) Hoyt, D. P., "The Relationship Between College Grades and Adult Achievement", American College Testing Program, Research Report No. 7, Iowa City, (1965).
(9) Jencks, C., and David Riesman, op. cit. p. 205.

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