Drownproofing for a Knowledge Economy

The original — and very literal — drownproofing course at Georgia Tech is no longer required, but a different kind of drownproofing is necessary for graduates to do well in a knowledge economy.

| December 2015

  • "Drownproofing" for college graduates may involve colleges and businesses working together to develop apprenticeship programs for students.
    Photo by Fotolia/Monkey Business
  • In “Higher Education and Employability,” Peter J. Stokes discusses several universities that have adopted ambitious collaborative programs with businesses to provide graduates with the skills they need to advance in a knowledge economy.
    Cover courtesy Harvard Education Press

In Higher Education and Employability (Harvard Education Press, 2015), Peter J. Stokes argues that colleges and universities can better serve the educational and professional interests of their students by collaborating with the businesses seeking to employ them. Collaboration between education and profession has never been more crucial, nor have the opportunities for partnership ever been greater. The following excerpt is from chapter one, “Drownproofing 2.0.”

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In 1940, a swimming instructor at the Georgia Institute of Technology by the name of Fred Lanoue — known affectionately to his students as Crankshaft due to a limp he had acquired while in the Navy — introduced a daunting new course into the university curriculum called Drownproofing, during which students were thrown into a pool with their hands and feet bound. Crankshaft’s job was to teach these students how to maintain a vertical floating position and effectively manage their breathing in order to survive in the water for long periods under challenging circumstances.

In time, the twenty-two-hour water survival course became a graduation requirement at Georgia Tech, striking fear into the hearts of swimmers and nonswimmers alike, many of whom put off taking Drowning 101, as it became known, until their senior year. As well as inspiring fear among students, though, the course also signaled the resolve and toughness of Georgia Tech’s graduates, and it became a revered tradition on campus well into the late 1980s, when it ceased to be a required course.



The spirit of drownproofing lives on at Georgia Tech, however, as Steve McLaughlin, the chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, explained to me in the winter of 2014. Think of it as Drownproofing 2.0, McLaughlin said: “Tying students’ hands and feet together and throwing them in the pool — that ended more than twenty years ago. But a ‘drownproofing’ life skill is something we still do today. It’s survival under pressure. It gives you a confidence that you can’t get any other way. And today the life skill that everyone has to have is the ability to create their own job. That’s Drownproofing 2.0.”

The Role of Higher Education in Promoting Work Readiness

Undoubtedly, there are many within the higher education community who, even today, would reject the notion that the purpose of a college education is to prepare students for the world of work, much less to train students to become job creators themselves. Yet, for others, the task of fostering students’ work readiness, developing their entrepreneurial capabilities, and guiding them down a pathway to a successful career is the de facto mission of all of our colleges and universities.



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