Years ago, when I was freelancing as a development researcher and writer, I helped the director of a new institute on children’s health prepare for a speech. I did the research that framed her remarks, which she wrote and ultimately presented to an advisory board. This was before the proliferation of Web-available information (in fact, Lydia was 8 weeks old at the time — 14 years ago!), and I conducted the research like a gumshoe, going stealthily from library to library, consulting periodical indexes, photocopying articles, and interviewing researchers.
At the Educational Development Center in Newton, I spoke at length to a library associate who first interviewed me, as a way of getting a bead on my questions and assignment. She asked me if I was familiar with the “Three E’s,” a neat way to think about public health problems, and she drew a simple diagram on the chalkboard in her office.
She explained that there are three kinds of approaches to addressing and attempting to solve entrenched problems, like teen pregnancy or gun violence: engineering, enforcement, and education. “Say you want to address rising teen pregnancy. An education approach would be to design a school-based curriculum at prevention. You might try to meaningfully inform teenagers about the responsibilities of parenting and offer them pragmatic advice about contraception. An enforcement approach would be to segregate pregnant teens from the main school program — this might be a disincentive to nonpregnant teens. The engineering approach would be the offering of Norplant, free of charge and through a school’s health clinic, to sexually active girls.” She added, “Whenever you can come up with an engineering solution to a health problem, it’s easier and usually more effective because it minimizes the human behavior aspects that enforcement and especially education rely on. Education is the hardest way to affect change.”
The Three E’s paradigm can be imposed on the many problems we face in our daily lives. Take parenting ones, for example. Jimmy and I, when we’ve confronted a frustration with a child that seems almost insurmountable (the toilet training of a 3-year-old for example), one of us has inevitably said to the other, “What we need here is an engineering solution.” Yeah, it gets kind of tiring trying to influence repeatedly the behavior of a not-typically-rational preschooler, and it would be so much easier to attach some kind of system to the child’s body or the toilet instead of setting up one of those (completely ineffective) reward charts.
As a teacher of writing, whenever someone mentions the word “grammar” or “plagiarism,” usually in the context of a violation, I think about this paradigm. Faculty and administrators, and perhaps students too, would like some sort of engineering solution to what can seem to be messes in student writing. And, hey, it’s hard to teach comma rules to 19-year-olds who haven’t mastered them yet, never mind why you have to cite another writer’s ideas and information in addition to her exact words. These frustrations, I believe, have led to the development of grammar checking software, and also plagiarism detection tools like Turnitin.com, which functions as both an engineering and enforcement tool for coping with students’ propensity to sloppily use the work of others. (Turnitin’s creator might argue that it’s an education tool, but, having been required to use it in a former teaching gig, I’m not buying that. It’s engineering, it’s enforcement, and that’s that.) Having worked very hard as a tutor to coach students in new grammar and citation behaviors, I can say this: education is the hardest way to affect change.
Have you tried to change your own diet or exercise patterns lately? Me, I make several attempts each year. I’m going to eat my nine fruits and vegetables a day. Or, I’m going to walk for thirty minutes every day at lunch. Jessica Apple’s editorial this week on Bloomberg’s proposed soda tax made me think of the Three E’s in relation to personal and public health challenges when it comes to nutrition. Bloomberg wants to get New Yorkers to drink less soda by making that soda cost more. He fingers soda consumption as a significant cause of “rising health care costs,” and so he’s going to enforce — via the tax system — a penalty on the drinking of soda. Jessica Apple, rightly, objects: “Taxing soda alone will not promote good health… A soda tax is a deceptive, easy fix.” While she proposes her own enforcement & engineering solution — that “supermarkets… make a junk food section, with a tollbooth at its entrance, and charge $5 per person to enter” — she also suggests what might lead to real behavior change: “Instead of an easy fix, Bloomberg and other policy makers should seek a long-term sustainable program that educates people about nutrition.”
I do believe that education changes people, and that’s why I teach. However, that change doesn’t happen steadily or in a straight line, and often we can only detect and measure change — in ourselves, in a population — from the vantage point of reflection. It takes time to get there.
This is not to say that engineers or enforcers do their work without thoughtfulness. At MIT, I’ve had the good luck to observe engineers in their design process, and I see how much concern for human body, behavior, and attitudes goes into research into a new vaccine or the testing of an innovative wheelchair. And yet perhaps we, in this technology epoch, want too much from our technologies: that they save us from ourselves. Turnitin to keep us honest. A soda tax to reduce consumption. What part of honesty and health — ours, or that of those dependent on us — are we willing to take on ourselves?
It would be easier to flip a switch, if someone could only make it for us.