March 10th, 2009

Round-abouts and the Ivory Tower


I was on the way from the Portland airport to my Dad’s place, being driven by a childhood friend who now runs a pick up and delivery business. We left the four lane and followed winding country roads on our way to Forest Grove, a small town at the base of the coast range in Oregon. We came to an intersection. There wasn’t a stop sign or a stop light but there in the middle of open fields was a beautifully landscaped round-about, two lanes wide. Down the road another half mile was another. Not the place you’d ever expect to find round-abouts. “Excuse me,” my friend said, “but that’s what people with education do.”

He doesn’t have much education, so that might explain the comment. But I’ve been thinking about this critique, wondering what it means and if it’s justified. When I asked him to explain, he said something about sitting in an office and coming up with things that don’t make any sense. That sounds like a version of the ivory tower criticism—educators removed from the world teaching people about the world and things that make it work.

Inherent in the critique is also the sense that educated people have knowledge, they can do things, but they can’t or don’t get the application right. The person who designed these round-abouts definitely knew what he or she was doing—that design is fine and maybe that was all they were supposed to do so the fault lies with the “educated” person who decided these intersections needed round-abouts. I’m not sure if there’s even one round-about in the whole city of Portland.

Who knows the real story here in terms of who made what decision, but chances are good somebody with education was involved, and he, she, or they got it wrong in this case. People with education don’t always get it wrong, but there’s enough truth in the criticism to make us think about equipping students, not just with knowledge, but with the kind of decision-making skills that prevent misguided applications of knowledge. Round-abouts in open fields don’t do a lot of harm, although drivers unfamiliar with them are confused about who merges when, who exits where and from what lane. But with some other kinds of knowledge, the stakes are much higher without some applications potentially deadly and ethically irresponsible.

Knowing how to apply what has been learned isn’t always obvious, at least to students for whom the knowledge is new. They need guidelines, examples and the chance to make practice applications, which can be critiqued in the comparatively safe educational environment. Then when they are in positions where they do make decisions, they don’t make ones that cause those without education to wonder about those with it.

—Maryellen Weimer