A bit more than 50 years ago, Hyman G. Rickover published a book with a prescription for America’s educational system titled Education and Freedom. In that book, Rickover shared some of his thoughts about the importance of high standards, enabling students with facts, and the benefits that entire nations gain when people achieve mastery of difficult topics.
Having been trained in the focused nuclear education system that Rickover established, I am pretty sure that he and Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother would have gotten along rather well. In fact, I think he would have welcomed her as an instructor at his Nuclear Power School and asked her to teach her colleagues how to extract excellence from their students.
Based on relatively recent contact with the Navy’s Nuclear Power School, I am quite certain that it remains true to Rickover’s standards as a tough place where standards of accuracy and performance remain unbowed by curves. The bar there is high; students work hard and most prove that they are able to master the difficult, but important topics. One thing that has always been a part of the nuclear power training pipeline is a lot of closed book tests that are NOT multiple choice or easy to grade.
After a year-long training program that is about as pleasant as drinking from a fire hose, about 70-80% of the carefully selected students walk confidently across the stage and enter into a field where continued study and improvement is the accepted norm. From what I know of the equivalent training program in the commercial nuclear industry, the standards there are just as high. The training program graduates and license holders are just as enabled by facts that they stuff into their brains. The material is not easy and the number of people who are willing to go through the difficult process of learning it is rather limited.
However, like learning to play a challenging piece on a violin, or learning how to perform a challenging surgical procedure, the effort to understand nuclear technology is worth the occasionally painful struggle. The people who master the subject can make great contributions to society by helping to maintain the system that is arguably the equivalent of the cardiopulmonary system of an industrial society – its reliable power grid.
There are, of course, somewhat simpler and more readily understood technologies that perform a pale imitation of the same function as a high-performing nuclear power system. Nearly anyone can understand how a wind turbine works and anyone can put a solar panel on their roof. It is also easier to learn to strum cords on a guitar than to play a concert quality violin.
There is little doubt in my mind that the high standards of performance and achievement demanded of the people who work in the nuclear industry have contributed to the rather incredible record of safety and plant performance. Though it is possible to find many negative stories about leaks, spills, and equipment failures, the facts speak for themselves. Few industrial injuries, no public safety impacts in more than fifty years, a decade worth of average capacity factors in the low 90% range, and unplanned shutdowns per unit in the low single digits each year. Most of the negative stories make the news for the same reason that editors are more likely to publish a story about a man biting a dog than about a dog biting a man. Routine excellence is not newsworthy.
I have no doubt that the incredibly high standards have done nothing to help the popularity of the power source. Quite frankly, Rickover’s prescription for educational excellence was ignored by most. Amy Chua’s description of her own efforts to arm her children with the power of knowledge have not won her universal acclaim. From my experience in the Navy, I can tell you that there are plenty of strong, proud leaders who remain resentful of having been rejected by nuclear power school recruiters or sent packing from nuclear power school because they failed to invest the hard work in class to learn what they needed to know.
It is also pretty obvious to me that some of the decision makers at electric power utilities prefer a less technically demanding power source, one that can be easily installed and operated without too much fuss. The decision makers especially like those less demanding power sources when they have figured out ways to make the public bear the brunt of the additional environmental and reliability costs they impose or the additional risks of fuel price volatility included in something like burning vast quantities of natural gas.
Though most of my nuclear industry colleagues are quite pleasant once you get to know them, they do have a tendency to see things in black and white. They expect people to work hard, to be able to answer hard questions, and to know when they need to do some homework before trying to fake their way through a difficult test. That does not always make them the best salesmen and it does not endear them to people who spend their college years in the liberal arts buildings or debating unanswerable questions about the meaning of life with great vigor in coffee shops and fraternity houses.
The rare world view of people like Rickover and Chua can be seen as a threat – some people in influential positions believe that social achievement and study by committee is somehow more important than getting facts right. In fact, those underachievers can be downright insulting – David Brooks called Ms. Chua a “wimp” because she did not allow her daughters to participate in sleepovers.
Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.
Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.
Aside: As a long time competitive swimmer, I have to challenge Brooks’s example. Swimmers may be able to achieve better times in relays, but that is only because they can use some anticipation techniques that are not available from a “flat start”. Each swimmer in a relay is completely independent and must have individually prepared for the event. That is one disagreement that I have with Amy Chua and Admiral Rickover; I think mastering a challenging sport can be an achievement worth the investment of time. End Aside.
Somehow, nuclear advocates need to help people like Mr. Brooks understand that committees make lousy nuclear power plant operators and machinery designed by committee rarely functions with precision. We need to help him understand that not everyone can be a nuke or operate a po
wer grid, but that is okay. He and everyone else who wants the freedom enabled by having clean, reliable electricity whenever and wherever they need it should turn those decisions to specialists who are willing to work hard, master their subject, and use the best possible technology. The measure of “best” should never be “easiest”, “quickest”, or “cheapest” over the short term.
Postscript: When Admiral Rickover interviewed me for his program, the engagement was mercifully short. He asked me, “Why are you an English major?” I told him that I liked to read and write. His next question was “Read and write? Have you written any books? I have written three. Have you read any of them?” My answer was “Not yet, sir.”
As a submarine Engineer Officer, I read a collection of his letters to commanding officers from cover to cover. I keep “Education and Freedom” on my shelf and refer to it fairly regularly. I guess I am just keeping my implied promise to the man, even 30 years after that interview.
I wonder if Amy Chua’s daughters are looking for employment. They would be terrific senior reactor operator candidates.