The value of technical education
Probably one of the most intriguing questions in history is why some nations are rich and others poor. There is no single determining factor, but one lesson stands out in our study of the individual histories of nations. This is the rise of technological innovation in human society, a process that saw man emerging from his crudest beginnings to make the tools and machines that brought civilization to the level it is now.
Human development has been very uneven. It is generally recognized that most underdeveloped countries are located in the tropical zone between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, while the developed nations lie in the area known as the Northern Hemisphere. Until our age, human progress has been largely dictated by the countries of this hemisphere, and as we can see from history, growth in this region was spearheaded by two nations—England and America. Why?
China and India were ancient civilizations, more ancient, in fact, than England or America, but since the Middle Ages, something happened that made England and America and, to a lesser degree, the other countries of Europe, surge forward. One thing is certain. In these two countries, science and technology grew by leaps and bounds, in contrast to the situation in China where centuries-long official repression stopped the spread of Chinese genius.
Human progress has its roots in human knowledge, in particular scientific knowledge. What is striking is that as scientific knowledge spreads, invention and innovation follow. Invention may be the talent of a few, but its rewards benefit all mankind. It is said that the machines and processes that built America may be attributed to only 20 or more scientists and innovators, and this is probably the case also in the other countries.
Innovation, as the product of the minds of a small percentage of the human population, is a psychological fact that involves two very rare mental qualities—inspiration and inventiveness. An Englishman named James Hargreaves in the 18th century invented the spinning jenny which revolutionized textile manufacturing and started England on the road to the Industrial Revolution. And it all happened because one day Hargreaves’ wife Jenny accidentally tipped over her spinning wheel. The wheel continued to revolve, but the spindle was now in a vertical rather than a horizontal position. It occurred to Hargreaves that a large number of spindles put side by side could be turned by the same wheel and spin thread many times more. The spinning jenny he invented served that purpose.
Oliver Evans, a farm boy in Delaware during the US Revolution era, was fascinated by the work in the flour mills where wheat was being turned into flour. The millers would carry the grain on their backs, walk up the stairs to the top floor, and had it fall through devices that regulated its flow to the millstones. Once the meal was ground, it was carried again to the top floor where it was dried and sifted through cloth to make flour. Evans was shocked at the human labor involved and saw in his mind’s eye the need to do away with this wasteful labor. Over the years he invented a machine that utilized conveyors to carry the grain and meal to their destination. Thus was born the conveyor belt which introduced the system of mass production in America.
Yet the great inventions were not born, like Minerva in the head of Zeus, full-grown. They were the result of years of study and meditation by their inventors. Evans used to study late into the night and made his drawings by the light of the hearth. They were inspired by their work, but before they can achieve any progress, they had to endeavor to improve their understanding of the mechanical arts, facing a lot of heartaches and disappointments along the way.
Why only a few are gifted with the ability to invent and innovate is beyond logical explanation. I would say that it is a gift from God, and the few to whom He has given it are scattered among all the races. Genius knows no national boundaries. But the fact that we find most of scientific geniuses in certain countries only tells us one important truth. The possession of an inventive mind—that which gives a man the ability to form new ideas—is only a part of the story. His genius will actually work for him only if he is prepared for it, and preparation comes from a lifetime of study and work. There is no free lunch in nature.
The explanation is, therefore, sociological. It is rooted in the social environment. Europe in the Middle Ages became one of the most inventive societies in history, because it came to develop what one writer calls the cultivation of invention. A spirit of free inquiry generally ruled the land which the Inquisition and other forms of repression could not stop. There were political fragmentation and free enterprise eventually leading to a democracy of ideas. Men began to think, study and innovate, with encouragement from the state, but fundamentally because their genius was no longer interfered with.
Indeed, we cannot create genius, but we can prepare the ground for it to emerge and be nourished. We can provide the environment that will draw out the natural talents of man. If it is true to say that preparation is the key to genius, then what can do the job better than providing a solid scientific and technical education to the general population and encouraging science and technology in the popular mind?
In our day and age, it is the state more than any other social institution that can do what is truly imperative—produce a scientific climate in our society. That is why government must make it a top priority to develop technical education in the country, and any administration that puts this goal on the back burner does not deserve support.
In large measure, the economic progress of a nation and its wealth and welfare will depend on the genius of a people cultivated by a scientific tradition. A respected academician once said: The awakening of permanent interests will always be the great miracle of education.
Mario Guariña III is a former associate justice of the Court of Appeals.
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