But what makes an excellent engineer? Doing Laplace transforms until you pass out doesn’t make you an excellent engineer, in the same way that conjugating 1001 verbs into passÃ© antÃ©rieur doesn’t make you fluent in French.
What makes an excellent engineer is not rote mastery of basic foundational concepts, but working with the right people to engineer creative applications of foundational concepts to solve interesting problems. Excellence in engineering is all about consciousness, compassion and creativity. It requires basic literacy and relatively strong mastery of mathematics, to be sure - but the three R’s are no more than an necessary precondition of excellence. The three C’s define what you do with the three R’s. The three C skills are the source of intellectual capital. The three R skills are mundane and often automatable.
The focus of creating the building blocks (reading, writing and arithmetic) misses the point of education, not because these things aren't important but because these things are only part of much more interesting work. Not only do people (engineers and everyone else) need to be able to read and write and count, they need to know how to interact with people in interesting ways. I suspect a big part of the problem is that there is no easy way to evaluate the quality of one's thinking and socialization processes - at least no generally accepted way. As a result, governments and the schools they fund are left with evaluating the building blocks and assuming that good skills will translate into success.
I am aware that good schools do much more than the three R's, but the point of Michael's discussion is that we need to begin explicitly encouraging the higher level goals to pull people through the areas that often seem too much like "busy work."