What I'm Reading: Joseph Hughes

joseph hughes

Lately, College of Engineering Dean Joseph Hughes has been “enthralled” with the notion of what makes an “educated person” in today’s world. He’s looking to old college textbooks for answers. And, for some lighter reading, he’s working his way through (for a third time) The Journey Through Risk and Fear, by Flyers goalie and Hall of Fame icon Bernie Parent.

Why did you choose these books?

I’ll admit, reading the old chemistry and physics textbooks is pretty geeky. But I’m really trying to understand what makes a person educated today.  The world is so different today than it was 30 years ago. Two hundred years ago, in order to be “educated,” you needed to be able to speak French. Around the turn of century, people felt that to be educated, you needed to know what an atom was; it wasn’t just the humanities anymore (for which I have great respect). Now, my 10-year-old daughter wakes up first thing she does is open her ipad. Her world is so different.

In reading these textbooks, I’m trying to understand how the people that developed those books taught students how to understand those subject matters at some level, knowing that these students would never be an actual chemist, physicist or a mathematician. I think the same thing needs to happen in engineering. I’m trying to understand how to make engineering part of how we educate not just engineers, but how we educate on a more liberal-arts level. I think people could benefit greatly from having some level of understanding of engineering.

I am also re-reading The Journey Through Fear and Risk, which was given to me as a gift by Bernie Parent, goaltender of the Broad Street Bullies of 1970s fame. It’s a snapshot of the life of Bernie Parent and follows the story of a serious injury he suffered during a game that made him go temporarily blind. Doctors told him he may never regain sight again. He fought through that and regained enough sight to come back and win the Stanley Cup.

What do you find particular important/ enjoyable about the books?

With The Journey Through Risk and Fear, what’s enjoyable is being able to connect with the author, even in just a small way. It has some personal intrigue for me because most times you don’t know the author of the book you’re reading at all. The fact that he gave me the book and autographed it really creates a personal connection.

As far as the textbooks I’m reading, I would like for a student who is not an engineering major to open a newspaper or Newsweek and be able to have the confidence to say “I can understand this.” One example and a critical issue of our time is global climate change. In the press, it’s often viewed as a political issue and not a scientific issue. It’s a complex scientific matter—I’m not taking any political side on this in any way. But, the physics of global climate change are not complicated. If more people understood the basis of global climate change, there would be a better dialogue and there would be less political involvement.

It’s a matter of having some level of understanding—I call it technological literacy. The textbooks show that people 100 years ago tried to communicate a literacy of science to a broad audience. We need to do the same thing in engineering and technology.

Is there a passage or a quote you find particularly interesting?

In The Journey Through Risk and Fear, Bernie writes “It was a day not unlike most other days. Nothing extraordinary about the day at all really, and if you are like me, you tend to take for granted days that are somewhat uneventful without realizing it. Of course, you don’t really take them for granted but you don’t give them much thought.”

I like this quote because, in my experience, life is episodic. Time goes by and then something dramatic happens that you didn’t see coming. And then your life is changed forever.