Activists and Engineers

Tufts is an activist’s college. You can hardly walk across campus or read The Daily without encountering arguments about the Middle East, sexual assault, racial or class privilege, the LGBT movement, or any other social movement. Don’t get me wrong, these are worthwhile causes and injustices worth correcting. But nevertheless it becomes grating. Everyone at Tufts wants to save the world, and it’s tiresome. My housemate summed it up when she said, “there are eight sides to every coin”. My campus doth protest too much.

What if I’m tired of ambiguity? What if I just want to curl up into my own little corner of knowledge marked “Engineering” and make things that work? Unfortunately, I don’t get the choice.

Today was the final project presentations for my Visualizations class. The field straddles art and science. One one hand, we learn about the human visual system, the mathematics of multidimensional data, and the coding techniques behind certain graphics. On the other, there are many subjective design and aesthetic choices to be made. What questions do you ask of the data, and then how do you present them to the user? Success is cruelly defined by whether the target user can navigate and learn from what you produce, which is as definitive as any physical phenomenon but much harder to predict or explain.

Later in the afternoon I attended a colloquium by Mike Eisenberg (computer science and cognitive science, U Colorado). He spoke about education technology that does not involve traditional screens. He asked how we can design physical spaces and materials to be conducive to science and math education. My mind wandered upstairs to the electric engineering lab, where I had been the beneficiary of an obsessively-organized collection of resistors and capacitors in constructing a complex circuit for another final project. I then thought back to the machine shop where I built robots in heigh school, which was called “Chaos Central” for a reason. Tools did have their homes, mostly, but old robot parts hung from the ceiling and it was never truly clean. Much as I would like to fantasize about a large, organized workspace to host my own robot team years down the line, I realized that chaos is part of the equation, even (especially?) for engineering. Eisenberg read my mind, rather literally. He said that although math and science are rational disciplines, the paths into them are anything but. The apex of his talk used language quite similar to what I have previously used on this blog: if only we could find the perfect way to present material, the universal narrative, education would be a solved problem. But we can’t, because it’s idiosyncratic, subjective,  and personal. My head reeling, I wondered: how can we eliminate the stigma and misconception that the sciences are dull and austere? They are anything but.

Then, later that night, I attended a talk given by Daniel May, Director of J Street U. Try this one on for size: a Jew, speaking mostly to Jews, about the right of Palestinians to a state, because it was the right thing to do. (Liberalism defined). Some of the questions he fielded were from even further left. The conflict has been notoriously divisive, even by Tufts standards, so it was pretty jarring to hear reasoned and well-articulated criticism of Israel. The larger point was that this was not a utopian undertaking but rather meant to be merely a more perfect union, an improvement over the status quo.

I have nothing against those who take up advocacy of Cause X, but I realized tonight that it’s not my narrative. Zoom out enough and you get “righting wrongs”, a banner most college students will happy walk under. But zoom in just a bit on Tufts and you get “righting social wrongs,” and that’s not what I’m in to. I want to right intellectual wrongs. I want to change education, to end the stigma over science and math, and stop those who deny the ways in which we have made such tremendous progress. Homeopathy upsets me. The antivaccination movement infuriates me as much as any other activist trying to end the senseless deaths of children. And the fourth-grade “science” quiz that’s been circulating the internet makes me livid.

The secret to life is education. It’s really that simple. Yet I feel that my chosen institution of education, for all that I love about it, has a subtle yet core value not quite aligned with mine. Change doesn’t begin in a foreign country with one of the most intractable conflicts of human history. Luckily, Tufts realizes that engineering and education don’t take place in a vacuum. I can’t treat people as robots or build robots without thinking of people (although many do). On the other hand, I do not want to fight against every injustice every committed. There just isn’t time or energy. The political causes I support have objective grounding: if you can’t get someone to accept a fact, how can you ask them to accept a person? Everyone at Tufts wants to save the world, but maybe the engineers will actually make some headway.

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