Sully and 'the Human Factor'

September 21, 2016

 Last week I read a newspaper article in which a university professor asked his students why none of them were majoring in history, English, or philosophy.  “Almost in unison, half a dozen replied: ‘Our parents wouldn’t let us.”

I then went to see the new Tom Hanks movie Sully about the pilot who landed a commercial airplane in the Hudson River.  It’s a movie that might be good for those students’ parents to watch.

In 2009 Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York.  Minutes later his Airbus A320 plane hit a flock of geese and lost thrust in both engines.  The outcome is well-known: Sully guided the plane to a safe water landing and everyone on board survived.  What the movie explores is the subsequent investigation into his decision-making.  Why didn't he try returning to LaGuardia?  Why didn’t he head toward another airport only 7 miles away?  Why didn’t he run all the emergency procedures before deciding to ditch a multi-million-dollar airplane in the river?

In one scene, investigators tell him that the information recovered from the flight data recorder shows that one engine was still working and could have made the return flight to LaGuardia.  Not one but two real-time simulations showed that the plane could have landed not only at the New York airport but also at one in New Jersey.  In response to this machine-driven data, Sully makes one simple point in his defense: you cannot exclude “the human factor.”

Without revealing anything further about the movie, Sully’s character refers to a kind of knowledge that mere data can’t provide.  Some scholars call it “personal knowledge”—a tacit way of sensing that can’t be verbalised or captured in mathematical models.  Most of us would call it intuition.  It is a kind of knowledge that Sully developed over decades of experience and upon which he relied in a crisis more than written protocols or computer formulas.

This isn’t to say that instrument-calculated knowledge--the kind many associate with STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths)--isn't important, nor that Sully disregarded numerical data.  Clearly not.  But the movie reminds us that it is not the only form of knowledge.  There are additional, more personal ways of knowing than just the scientific, and a successful career—and life—can depend on taking them seriously.  Moreover, such 'personal knowledge' can be cultivated and improved through experience and study.  A good, foundational education, therefore, will seek not just to develop students' quantitative reasoning skills but also to develop their imagination and intuition (through the study of great literature, for example).   

When it comes to choosing an educational pathway, it seems that many students and their parents have forgotten these truths.  As one university official notes in the aforementioned article, parents often steer their children toward STEM majors because they “are more interested than ever in the direct path between a degree program and a first job, and the eventual salary associated with that degree. … What parents are thinking about is return on investment.” 


That’s why when Harvard University professor Jill Lepore hosted an info session at her home for students interested in history and literature, one student “kept getting text messages from her parents ordering her to leave the meeting immediately.”


According to Steven Pearlstein, however, when it comes to specialising in a discipline at university,


the original rationale for majors was not to train students for careers. Rather, the idea was that after a period of broad intellectual exploration, a major was supposed to give students the experience of mastering one subject, in the process developing skills such as discipline, persistence, and how to research, analyze, communicate clearly and think logically.


In other words, the goal of specialising in one academic field was not necessarily a job but a set of thinking skills--an array of different ways of knowing--capacities which are anchored in a broad education and then honed through a specialised focus.   


As it happens, those are precisely the skills business executives still say they want from college graduates … A study for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of employers agreed that a “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a job candidate’s] undergraduate major."


The ability to solve complex problems.  That’s certainly the situation in which Sully found himself 2,000 feet above one of the most populated areas on the planet with no working engines.  Fortunately, this former president of his high school Latin club and first chair flautist did not ignore the importance of “the human factor.” 

And what about the parents of the 155 people on board that infamous flight?  I bet they’re very glad that the knowledge of its pilot wasn’t limited to the kind provided by STEM. 


Watch CHC Research Symposium Keynote
on the Trinity and Enchanted Learning

In issue 33 of The Pillar, we encouraged readers to watch James K A Smith's opening keynote address at the recent CHC Research Symposium.  To view the other keynote, delivered by Dr Ryan Messmore and entitled "The Trinity, Love, and Higher Education: Recovering Communities of Enchanted Learning," click here


Reading Further...

We couldn’t resist quoting a bit more from the article “Meet the parents who won’t let their children study literature”:


This focus on [tertiary education] as job training reflects not only a misreading of the data on jobs and pay, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of the way labor markets work, the way careers develop and the purpose of higher education…

study by economists at Yale found that half of the premium earned by STEM majors can be explained not by what they learned in [uni] but by the greater intelligence, diligence and other characteristics that they brought to those majors in the first place. Or to put it another way, they would have earned more no matter what they majored in.

And, of course, starting a major is not the same as completing it … those who chose majors simply to please their parents are more likely to give up or burn out. “It’s just harder to weather the hard times if you don’t have the intrinsic motivation”…

You might not expect [school leavers] to understand that careers don’t proceed in straight lines, but surely their parents ought to. ... one
study found that only 27 percent of people have jobs that are substantially related to their college majors — a reality that applies even to the STEM fields. 


Having made that critique, Steven Pearlstein advocates what sort of education many students not only resonate with but will also benefit from in the future job market...and it has to do with 'the human factor':


In today’s fast-changing global economy, the most successful enterprises aren’t looking for workers who know a lot about only one thing. They are seeking employees who are nimble, curious and innovative. The work done by lower-level accountants, computer programmers, engineers, lawyers and financial analysts is already being outsourced to India and the Philippines; soon it will be done by computers. The good jobs of the future will go to those who can collaborate widely, think broadly and challenge conventional wisdom — precisely the capacities that a liberal arts education is meant to develop.


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