Of Bomb Threats, Stained Glass Windows, Truthers, Old Books and College Students

This is the time of year when many academic institutions wind down their semesters.  That’s certainly the case with UTC where I teach.  It’s time to reflect on a couple of things that have transpired during the calendar year which, in their own way, deflect a good deal of conventional wisdom about those who are “coming up.”

The first took place last Spring.  The reality of violence on campus is one of the sadder aspects of college life, but administrations have to take it seriously.  Just before an end of class, the alarm went off: it was a bomb threat.  The general result of this is that the building is evacuated and the faculty and students that need to re-enter the building in the foreseeable future stand in the parking lot and wait until the all-clear sign. Mercifully UTC has not had a bomb go off in living memory, although we had one threat called in by a student who was afraid they would bomb an exam!

There’s one big upside to all of this: standing in the parking lot turns into a social event.  It’s easy in academia to put on blinders and only interact with the same group of people all of the time.  A bomb threat is an opportunity to catch up with people you don’t see very often, or in the case of students do so outside of the classroom.  I had a student who went to an old-line, downtown church that has morphed into something of a “mega-church” (“mega” relative to the size of the community it’s in.)  As a result of this they built a new multi-million dollar complex in a more suburban setting.  But my student wasn’t all that pleased.  As we were standing around, he confessed to me that he preferred the old church they were in because it had stained glass windows and he could look at them and enjoy them during the service.

Stained glass windows were, for centuries, Christianity’s visual presentation for most church goers.  In an age of illiteracy, they taught the truths of the faith to many.  They’ve been lampooned as stodgy and “churchy,” but it was interesting to hear a member of a generation raised online longing for stained glass windows.  It may not put the lie to a lot of calls for “relevance” these days amongst church leaders, but it certainly puts things in a different perspective.

The second event I want to touch on wasn’t a bomb threat but was nevertheless explosive in its own right.  The university’s diversity department sponsored a panel discussion entitled The Science of 9/11.  When it quickly became evident that this was turning into an advocacy session for the “Truthers,” and the main target was our former civil engineering department head (who was on the panel, largely agreeing with our government’s assessment of the causes of the collapse of the WTC) my students who were there became the main opposition to the procession of Truthers, whose main comeback was “Google it.”

Subsequent discussions revealed that my students took a more critical view of what came up in a search engine than many of my contemporaries.  The Internet is a tremendous–essential really–tool for research and news gathering, but my students took a more “trust but verify” type of approach.  I suppose my contemporaries, triumphant in successfully turning on a computer, are more gullible about the quality of the information found therein.

A few weeks later our library had a surplus book sale.  We are about to get a new library, and the library department wanted to trim the collection of books with little interest, some of which hadn’t been checked out in twenty years.  For a seasoned engineer, there were some real gems to be found, but I have spotted stacks of books which some of my (and other engineering) students had bought.

Why would they do this, other than the books were cheap?  Engineers are, on the whole, a cautious group.  They want their designs to be successful (and the legal system gives them plenty of additional motivation as well.)  They understand that a) science and technology does march forward, but b) many of the underlying principles are still the same, and c) old material contains experience that may be “lost in the shuffle” now.  Engineers, to the greatest extent possible, want to avoid the mistakes of others or, put otherwise, want to benefit from the wisdom of others.  If an old book contains an idea or a caution that saves money or prevents failure, it’s worth remembering, even if the newer material overlooks it.

My office at the university is in what I refer to as the “Textbook Museum.”  It’s filled with old textbooks, but they’re still valuable reference materials and, as some of my students have pointed out, better written and edited than what is out now.  Unfortunately too much of our educational establishment is mesmerised with the newness of technology and the fear of looking old that, once again, we risk losing a great deal of accumulated wisdom that our students really need–and want–to have on hand.

The generation that was raised not to trust anyone over 30 is now far past that, but we’re still locked into the fear that we’ll be thrown into the trash can of history if we don’t always present the newest thing.  What we need to present is that which endures, has meaning and works, and that’s especially important when we turn to the greatest “old” book of all.

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