Bueller… Bueller…

November 5, 2009

Please excuse me for jumping straight from day one on the Annual Conference all the way to the closing remarks.  I was deathly ill err…busy.  It’s along story, but here are the highlights: an 80 mile round trip joy ride to set up for the service activity in a Chevy Cobalt (alas the Cameron’s father’s Ferrari was in Chicago); a costume party in the Negro Baseball League Museum (contains almost as much history as Wrigley field); and diner with author Brian Brenner (not quite as prestigious as Abe Froman, sausage king of Chicago).

Why all the Ferris Beuller jokes?  Ben Stein was the final speaker at the conference.  Far from the monotone sleep inducing lectures attended by the Wonder Years’ kids, his talk was very entertaining.  He woke everyone up by starting, “I like you guys because your job’s not B.S.”  As opposed to the entertainers with which he frequently works, he expressed thanks that engineers work “real jobs with exactitude.”

An economist by training, Mr. Stein then gave a quick history of economic policy in this country.  There was something for people of all political orientations to cringe at.  His take on supply-side (a.k.a. trickle down or Reganomics): “it doesn’t work.”  He’s no lover of the Obama administration’s economic policy either.  But to explain why we find our selves in this current economic malaise, he offered this analogy to civil engineering: “credit default swaps are as if every time you built a bridge, you were required to attach a land mine that would explode at some random point in the future.”

Finally, he turned his cynical gaze toward education.  Having worked a quiz show and a reality program about the intelligence of Hollywood models, he is quite terrified about the state of education in America.  Several anecdotes backed up this impression.  Even among college graduates, he lamented, “you can be pretty drunk and hung-over and get a C in college.”

Lest we all despair about the future of the country, he did end the conversation with the inspirational stories of the men and women in the armed forces.

The connection between his various stories and civil engineering was subtle but important.  People from all walks of life are seeking answers to the complex questions of our day.  Engineers are viewed as an elite team of problem solvers with the education and creativity to solve these problems.  It is a lofty charge but one we can achieve if we accept this vision for the profession.

The closing of the conference represents the end of our “day off.”  Like Ferris Bueller’s friends, we’ve learned more about ourselves and the expectations for our profession.  Monday will come and we’ll be back at school or work, but perhaps the conference attendees will be better able to tackle the daily challenges and make the most of the rest of the year.

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