Reading and Thinking
Well-educated graduates don’t need to be told what magazines to buy.
By Henry Petroski
A former provost of my university was fond of describing the ideal graduate of our college of arts and sciences as one who regularly read the American Scholar, Scientific American, and the Economist. It was not a final assignment for seniors to subscribe to these publications but a way of saying that an education did not end with a diploma.
I was reminded of this recently when I received an invitation to subscribe to the Economist. As has become common with such solicitations, the package included a brochure touting the features of the magazine and included endorsements from thought leaders. The one that caught my eye was from Larry Ellison, cofounder and chief technology officer of Oracle, the multinational computer technology corporation. His blurb reads in full, “I used to think. Now I just read the Economist.”
I doubt this is what my provost had in mind. Reading any current publication should not be a substitute for thinking. Rather, it should be a supplement to what we learned in school, a source of updating information and opinion, a stimulant to thinking.
My provost’s list of magazines was surely meant to be not prescriptive or exclusive but representative of how our alums could keep up with intellectual developments in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. For example, his list might just as easily have included American Scientist, published by Sigma Xi, the scientific and engineering honor society, which was founded as the scientific counterpart of Phi Beta Kappa, publisher of the American Scholar. (In the interests of full disclosure, I write the Engineering column in American Scientist.)
The “science slot” might also have been filled by M.I.T.’s Technology Review, which would have at least implicitly recognized engineering as something the educated person today should consider on a par with the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Indeed, that is exactly what the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation had promoted with its New Liberal Arts Program.
But, as engineering educators know all too well, after about a half century of effort, engineering has not yet been fully integrated into college curricula. And this is in spite of the fact that engineering and its principal fruit, technology, are what drive and characterize our high-tech age. But we also know that when it comes to the big picture, academic change can move very slowly indeed.
Fortunately, there are publications of the kind, if not the exact ones that my provost advocated, that do enable college graduates—liberal arts majors, social scientists, biological and physical scientists, and of course engineers—to keep up with developments in their field and put them in the context of developments in the world. It is no longer—if it ever has been—sufficient to end an education after four years. A person who did so would be at risk of soon becoming obsolete or redundant in the workplace and woefully uninformed as a citizen.
While I do believe my provost had the correct idea, there should be no need to make explicit lists of magazines for post-graduate reading. If we instill in our students an appreciation for learning and reading not as a substitute but as a stimulant for thinking, they should naturally come to subscribing to and reading publications that best enable them to carry on almost painlessly their own form of lifelong learning.
Of course, today the concept of publication has taken on broader meanings than traditional magazines and newspapers, and we must also allow that a list of websites, blogs, and other digital forms of information may serve the same purpose. But regardless of what form the sources of their information may take, we should never want to see those we claim to have educated use reading as a substitute for thinking.
Henry Petroski is A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and professor of history at Duke. His latest book is The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski