Why engineering education belongs to the humanities


Engineers have a large responsibility for the design, fabrication, operation and maintenance the built world.  The environment in which all of us live is to a very large extent the result of engineering practice.  Despite our appreciation of and nostalgic yearning for nature, we do not live in the natural world.  Indeed nature as  nature may be forever gone from the face of the earth.  Our contact with nature - appropriations of nature such as gardens and forest preserves or exploitations of nature such as agriculture and mining - is mediated partly but essentially through the efforts of engineers.

Although engineering in varying degrees draws upon the sciences, mathematics and technology, engineering itself is no one of those and in many respects quite dissimilar from any of them.  The point of view that sees the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) as a homogeneous grouping misunderstands the profound differences in purpose and method that each individually represents.  

Given the actual tasks of engineering, well-expressed in the acronym of the CDIO Organisation, viz., Conceive, Design, Implement, Operate -- in other words, the tasks entailed by the responsibility to care for the world where we live our lives, it seems clear that engineering is more allied with the humanities than it is with its brethren STEM disciplines.

There has been a lot of discussion about how much and specifically what of the humanities's disciplines engineering students should study. The discussion always poses the problem that a typical undergraduate engineering program is already too crowded and that the addition of humanities courses will over burden the curriculum at the expense of essential technical training.  This viewpoint incorrectly challenges the importance of the humanities in the context of engineering education, but it does underscore the undeniable point that the preparation of the professional engineer does not leave much opportunity for leisurely reflection on the big ideas and enduring questions of the humanities.  

Perhaps the dilemma can be liberated from its horns if the proposition is reversed.  Rather than asking what of the humanities an engineering program should require, let us ask how can engineering be part of humanities education. The liberal arts, of course, include science and mathematics as part of themselves.  Shouldn't liberal education introduce its students to the lifeworld where humanity dwells?

There are difficulties inherent in this proposition.  At the 3rd International  Symposium onTotal Engineering Educationconvened in April 2015 at the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai, I delivered a few remarks on the topic.  The slides from my presentation are included here. 


On another occasion I discussed the idea of using classical humanities texts within an engineering education program.  These comments follow:

The place of the traditional classics in contemporary university STEM education


This presentation explores the legacy of early philosophical and proto-scientific texts (from Chinese, Greek and Indian traditions) in the context of global university level STEM education in the present age.  It is argued that the preparation of engineers to work in the expanding international corporate and public sectors requires a degree of multi-cultural awareness and understanding that is best achieved through the study of the classics.  However, the classic texts need to be presented in a manner that makes evident their ongoing relevance in an era dominated by technology and especially to the rigours of STEM education.  In practice this means that classics based humanities instruction must be carefully and systematically integrated within the engineering curriculum.  Humanities education should not be characterised as providing “soft skills” to supplement or support core studies in natural science, engineering and mathematics, but on the contrary as the core of engineering itself, elucidating the purposes and values inherent within technology enterprise. Philosophers (e.g., Heidegger) have warned that the many benefits of technology will be undermined if society assumes a passive or dependent relationship on it; if technology itself becomes the focus of our attention, such that we tend to celebrate (or condemn) it rather than the purpose it ostensibly serves, our discernment of the issues crucial to our time will be weakened. Engineers, perhaps more than anyone, while maintaining a high level of technical expertise, need to achieve a “free relation” to technology. To this end the classics provide a singular resource.  Not only will they (through the judicious selection of texts) help to provide foundational understanding of scientific and technical theory, but also the classics of world literature can more emphatically and uniquely set technology and engineering among the enduring existential questions that face humankind. This presentation offers a practical means to achieve these educational and social goals.
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1. Introduction:

In our day the condition C.P. Snow thought of as the crisis of two cultures   persists in most universities.  Although intellectual discourse and collaborative research across disciplines, including projects that associate the humanities with the natural sciences, is increasing the results of such cooperation often betrays orthogonal values and intentions. There is a sense in which the mutual disdain noted by Snow has metamorphosed into a contest over which approach cleaves to the way most closely associated with the “truth.”

While the humanities and the sciences each lay claims to the truth (and each may mean something entirely different by that), engineering for the most part operates on a different plane. The case for engineering education, however, is somewhat different.

Public discussion on the state of higher education turns inevitably to the importance of STEM subjects and the believed imperative to improve and expand STEM instruction at all levels of schooling to achieve the often-unquestioned goal of graduating more scientists, engineers and mathematicians.  One sometimes hears the view that STEM should be the core of most education, supplemented by instruction in “communications skills” and little else. 

Such advocacy may overlook how technology and culture together present a powerful and complex problematic that has wide-ranging implications and creates opportunities for higher education.  Modern technology, with its promise of economic growth and development, offers almost irresistible incentive (especially in less developed countries) to accept its innovations and the global standards they imply, resulting in a kind of international homogenisation and loss of distinctive cultural practices.   Under the influence of the march of technology it is easy to loose track of the past and along with it understanding of the traditions that formed the present.  Globalisation, intensified by advanced technology, has increased the quantity of international exchange while leveling the perceived or recognised difference among cultures.  It seems possible that, without some countervailing intervention, a generalised leveling process will obtain, a kind of cultural homogenisation while muting cultural difference and apparent abrogation of diversity will undermine the range of cosmopolitan experience and precipitate varieties of social intolerance.

This double-edged sword of modern technology and global culture, simultaneously offering promise and peril, strikes at the heart of higher learning.  The risk is unavoidable but essential to the very purpose of education.

The purpose of this paper is to elaborate on the relationship between an important tradition within the humanities and contemporary STEM education.  Within that general theme its intent is to offer a practical approach, by incorporating classical texts, to preserving a place for humanities study within (especially) engineering education.

2. What is STEM education?

The belief that economic society will benefit from the improvement and expansion of STEM education on all levels, but perhaps most emphatically in tertiary institutions is ubiquitous. In large part this means offering STEM programs for more students under the largely correct assumption that the skills learned in such programs are those most needed in our age of technology.  This assumption rests on certain notions regarding the substance of the STEM disciplines that deserve some examination.

The acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) suggests a field comprised of different subjects united by a common methodology.  While there is some overlap and mutual dependency each of the four terms represents something quite different. 

A rethinking of STEM education is needed.  It is typically thought that STEM subjects are closely allied, share a common methodology, and pursue roughly the same outcomes. But is this the case? Are scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians really cultivating the same or adjacent fields? Are their dispositions and motivations similar? Is it even easy for representatives from these four disciplines to collaborate? 

In fact the natural (biological or physical) sciences, modern technologies, engineering practices and pure and applied mathematics present a broad range of disciplines with content so diverse as to limit severely the possibility of common discourse.  But it is not the variety of content that is problematic; it is that this family of disciplines puts forth a diversity of intellectual endeavours or ways of thinking.  

To think about or to think through STEM means to step back and assess the various modes of thinking and calculating characteristic of the various constituent disciplines. How might this work?

As an example let us compare engineering and mathematics. It is necessary at the outset to be more specific as both engineering and mathematics have subfields quite different from each other. So consider electronics engineering (a branch of engineering that relies extensively on mathematical models and calculations) and applied mathematics, i.e., mathematics in explicit relation to the observable world.  Now the question is, “Do electronics engineers and applied mathematicians think in the same way?”  In one straightforward sense they do not. To put it simply, the mathematician is concerned about the coherence and clarity of the mathematical formulation as a description, valid on its own terms, while the engineer is concerned about its efficacy in solving a design problem.  That is to say the engineer is seeking an efficient solution to a prescribed problem and the mathematician desires an elegant and intellectually satisfying description. The former may not be the latter (and vice-versa).  

The focus of our attention here will be on engineering which itself represents a broad swath of methods and concerns.

3. Engineering and the Humanities:

Using the term “and” in the heading of this section may be misleading as it may suggest a difference other than what is actually the case.  Under the mindset of STEM, engineering studies are presumed to have little in common with the liberal arts or humanities. Within the typical undergraduate engineering curriculum liberal arts core requirements are often thought to be distractions, edifying adornments at best, softheaded adulterations at worst.  This judgment is a mistake of the first order.  Rather than regarding the humanities and engineering as distant, one needs to recognise engineering for what it is: applied humanities. Why we see architecture as belonging to the traditions of the humanities but not engineering is because products of architectural work are visible to the eye of the public while that of engineers may not be.  Yet the work of engineering is decidedly in the public interest and its excellence to a significant degree can be measured by how well it serves that interest. In this regard one thinks first about safety and reliability, factors of great importance to end users that may simply be presumed.  The engineer’s commitment to safety and reliability is straightforward and does not require a cultivated understanding of social norms and values.  But many other engineering activities do.  It is these latter, often subtle, obligations to the public realm that tend to be overlooked when STEM pursuits are understood in a narrow, technologically determined manner,

For compelling reasons that will not be restated here the popular notions that technology (and science) are “value free” and that technology is universal and cross-cultural are mistaken.  But it is a fortiori the case that engineering is rooted in culture, expressing norms and forming opinions.  A curious example is found in how water is heated for domestic use in the United States compared with most other developed countries.  In the United States a large, insulated tank is filled with water, heated and stored until needed.  When the hot water tap is opened the tank is drawn upon to supply the need.  In most other countries the water is heated on demand, usually with a burner automatically igniting when the tap is opened heating the water as it passes through a coil of copper tubing situated over the burner and in close proximity to the tap.  One might prefer the latter method for reasons of cost, durability and efficiency.  Why it is not the preferred method in the United States reflects culture, history and tradition and these factors influence the engineering as much as the physics does.  To paraphrase George Santayana,  those who blindly follow history without understanding are doomed to be poor engineers.

Engineering is a dialogue with culture, history and society.  To be part of this dialogue engineers need more than science, technology, mathematics and communications knowledge and skills; they must possess a discerning understanding of cultural values and the imagination to situate them in new and innovative contexts.

4. Humanities in the Engineering Curriculum: 

What sort of education prepares one to achieve this type of discerning point of view? Surely the humanities, more than anything else, prepare one to practice the kind of restrained, critical but open-minded judgment essential to discerning wisdom.  While humanities education alone is insufficient for this goal, its instrumentality in this regard is almost completely diminished in an engineering curriculum when it is present only as a few stand alone required courses.  

Courses in the works of Shakespeare or Goethe or that read carefully masterpieces like the Dao De Jing or the Bhagavad Gita, would certainly contribute to the development of cultural understanding and discernment but probably to a lesser extent within the confines of an overburdened engineering program.  The type of thinking required to appreciate the nuances expressed in such texts is categorically different than the problem solving skills demanded by engineering.  Humanistic thinking (to coin a term) is no less rigorous than the calculations urged by STEM exercises.  But it is generically different, seeking an entirely different sort of precision and exactitude, than the mental labor connected to scientific inquiry. The goals and results are different and to one whose large effort is invested in engineering problem solving they may be obscure. It is an inevitable expression of the two-culture paradigm condemned by Snow.

However, more than an instance of intellectual isolation, this consequence represents the reduction of engineering thinking to mere problem solving.  Engineers, perhaps like physicians, must simultaneously think and problem solve.  This dyad, thinking and problem solving, in order to be effective, must be integrated tightly.  The integration of thinking and problem solving cannot be achieved by the various well-intentioned efforts to make the content of humanities courses relevant to the interests of engineers.  Nonetheless examples of this abound. A Shakespeare course might, for example, include discussions of the technology of theater productions of selected plays.  This may be far fetched, an abrogation of the virtue of reading literature in order to fit into a technology driven curriculum, but it is only a step or two beyond the common approach taken in introductory humanities courses where the objective to teach how to write within the discipline of science or engineering is undertaken by requiring students to read and study trivial essays such as Steve Jobs’ address to the graduating class of Stanford University. Neither humanities education nor technology training is advanced in this case. The approach panders to technological lust and feigns the notion that the humanities are relevant.

5. The Integration of Thinking and Problem Solving: 

Martin Heidegger and then more lucidly Hannah Arendt discussed the meaning of thinking and problem-solving.   Thinking is characterised by radical openness with respect both to multiple discourses and the future.  Thinking is never finished and its product, thoughtfulness, is contemporaneous with the activity.  Problem solving, on the contrary, aims at a solution within which the problem itself dissolves. When a problem is solved the solution often seems obvious – there is nothing more to think about. Problem solving is often quantitative and calculative, the right nut to fit the bolt, i.e., it seeks something very specific and deeply embedded in the context and not open in the sense that thinking is.  

Engineering requires both thinking and problem solving. Why is this so?  Isn’t engineering that discipline that specialises in finding solutions to problems identified by others?  And isn’t it the case that the point of engineering is to find new and better solutions to persistent or emerging problems?  This view is correct but limited.  It presupposes that the problems presented to engineers for solution are well formed and reflect what is genuinely in the best interest of society (at whatever level).  But this assumption is likely unwarranted.  A man may think his life will be improved and his life happier if he acquires an automobile.  From a CDIO standpoint  an automobile is a solution to a large set of problems.  But none of the myriad solutions answers the question of whether the man’s life will be improved or he will in any way be happier.  It is his responsibility to think through the circumstances of his life to develop some understanding of what will lead to happiness.  In this instance it is clear that the happiness issue is not part of the engineering problem set but such clarity is not always the case.  As new technologies emerge it often happens that the anticipated use is not realized while other potential uses are at the time not even recognised.  This happened with the introduction of modern computing equipment where such innovations as word processing and digital photography were unrelated to the problem set behind the engineering of the device.  A more disturbing example is the design of the atom bomb.  Not only were many uses of nuclear energy not considered but additionally the full impact and long lasting destructive effects were neither anticipated nor fully recognised even after the first several detonations. 

In short technology is complex and almost always leads to unanticipated consequences, often undesirable and irreversible.  It is for this reason that engineers have special responsibilities to engage in all phases in the development, deployment and maintenance of technological devices.  These responsibilities entail the active participation and ability to contribute to thinking about the social and cultural, namely human aspects of newly introduced solutions.  The term imagination was used earlier. It refers to a comprehensive way of thinking about the world that permits one to relate to variations on the given.  When we say, imagine a world without war or imagine that death is not inevitable it’s an invitation to engage in this kind of comprehensive thinking.  

The cultivation of imagination in this sense should be an important aspect of engineering education.  An engineer should be able to think comprehensively about the life-world as modified and constructed by human activity and endeavour.  Engineers have an important role in making and caring for the world we live in. Understanding that world and the impact of engineering practice is a proper duty of engineers.

6. The Cultivation of Imagination in the Education of Engineers:

Imagination in the sense presented here involves careful thinking about the world in all of its dimensions, physical, cultural and social, and requires some understanding of the past. As engineering students concern themselves with the details and procedures of technical problem solving how can the ability and propensity to think openly and comprehensively about the world be developed? It has been here suggested that humanities education encourages thinking and engineering training develops and sharpens problem solving skills.  Imagination, especially when pointed toward the future, needs both. Requiring a quotient of humanities courses, as part of a required liberal arts core will not, when made part of a typical engineering program, be sufficient to promote imagination.  Learning that integrates thinking and problem solving is the necessary approach.  How can this be accomplished?

The careful reading and analysis of classic texts that project the human condition (under specific circumstances) and at the same time discuss problems of science and technology – that is, texts that disclose scientific or proto-scientific thinking under circumstances other than our own, are models of comprehensive scientific and engineering thinking or imagination.

The study of such texts can both elicit an understanding of the world and portray novel technological solutions to perceived problems.  The careful and attentive reading of such texts crystalizes a version of the world, although constructed with categories different than those that prevail today, where our imagination – social, cultural, political, scientific, etc., is enabled.  Just as travel to a foreign destination allows us to see ourselves in new light, so this journey permits us to imagine a world where we have not yet been. Insofar as the selected texts engage us as scientists and engineers, despite the very different toolbox, our imaginations will be employed.  The reader will benefit by an expanded notion of the human condition and be made aware of the resourcefulness of engineering as a human activity.

7. The Use of Classic Texts:

The list of suitable texts is quite long. Several criteria guide the choice of texts. 

•    The text should provide a window onto one of the world’s great civilisations. Enough should be known a priori about this civilization so that features that are not evident from the chosen text but are operative in the discussion can be explained.
•    The text should present or allude to the cultural, social, political circumstances that motivate the discussion.
•    A STEM topic should be at issue.  It need not be the specific focus of the discussion; indeed it may even seem peripheral, but it should be clear that it makes a difference.
•    The argument or the narrative should be clear in translation, allowing the reader to understand what is at stake without loosing the difference between now and then.
•    Selections should be short enough to permit the inclusion of a large number and wider variety of texts during the course of study.

Engineering students may initially find these texts both odd and irrelevant to their studies.  They will also find them challenging to read for both stylistic and historical reasons. These difficulties should not be barriers but indeed instruments to assist with the transition from problem solving to genuine thinking.  Students should thus be prepared to read these texts in a manner different from their usual approach when studying engineering, mathematics or science.  But it must also be made clear that they must nonetheless approach these texts as engineers or scientists.  One goal is to show how issues and themes of science and engineering were addressed in contexts profoundly unlike contemporary technological society.  Students should thus be able to expand their categories of interpretation and develop original and creative modes of design and innovation.

8.  An Example:

There are many potential texts from most of the world’s civilisations. As an illustration a short text from early Greek philosophy and physics will be considered.   The work in mind is the summary of fragments of a cosmological theory advanced by Thales of Miletus (Θαλῆς ὁ Μιλήσιος).  The elements of his theory can be stated in four sentences. These four provocative sentences are distilled from Aristotle’s discussion of Thales in his Metaphysics. 

1.    The first principle and basic nature of all things is water.
2.    The earth rests on water.
3.    Soul is mixed throughout the universe such that it is said that all things are full of gods.
4.    Even the lodestone has soul as it sets the iron in motion.

Clearly the ideas advanced seem distant from current scientific views.  Most students will probably find the notion that all things are made of water primitive and even absurd. The very idea that understanding the meaning of his theory will help one in thinking in the context of science and engineering today may be regarded as outrageous.  How can the study of these early Greek cosmological principles be beneficial to the incipient engineer?

The effort must be made to resist the inclination to dismiss Thales’ ideas as merely quaint or primitive that have been refuted and superseded by modern science. The question ought not be whether they are correct. Rather the investigation should pursue the questions of how and why Thales came to hold this position.  That is, as a kind of thought experiment, one imagines the intellectual (investigative and creative) process that could have led Thales to his admittedly peculiar conclusion.

One first considers what is at stake, what were the intellectual, theoretical or practical problems behind these assertions.  To this it seems obvious that questions such as “What is the nature of nature?” and “Why do things happen the way they do?” and “How can we live in the midst of such a universe?” drove his thinking. The first two are scientific questions and the third a kind of proto-engineering question.  

One may next wonder about the presuppositions behind the fundamental questions raised.   On this level the expectation of a material universe is evident as is the notion that a single cause provides the best explanation.  It then is obvious that the problems of change and plurality are fundamental and require some solution.

Finally the issue of methodology needs clarification.  One does not make up a theory from nothing; creative ideas are not bolts from the blue.  Rather Thales’ creative explanation results from an investigative process that was both empirical and rational.

With all this in mind, here is a short exegesis of this brief outline of Thales’ cosmological theory:

First principle = Something like an axiom or starting point of an explanation or proof.
Basic nature = The stuff of which everything is composed.
Water = Material substance that is mutable (exemplified but not limited to the observable fact that water presents itself in gaseous, liquid and solid states).
Earth rests upon water = The explanation for why the earth doesn’t fall into an abyss, suggested by such observations as land being surrounded by the seas and digging deep enough into the earth inevitably finds water).
Soul is intermixed and all things are full of gods = An account of change and motion; the dynamics of nature are acknowledged by positing an animating principle (soul) that is a quality of both the axiomatic first principle and basic nature principle.
Lodestone has soul = The idea that change is perpetual and not always observable to the naked eye. 

Thus in these few sentences one observes an application of mathematical reasoning to explain order and a way of accounting for the dynamic character of the natural world that suggests that the material world is a single substance that ultimately is the appearance of energy.  At this point it is easy to draw comparisons and note similarities and differences with theories in contemporary physics.  

The comparison with modern theory when first recognized usually astounds. It provides an exquisite teaching moment when basic questions about the structure and applicability of theories can be presented.  Modern notions about the practical uses of theory can be explored, including the utility of mathematics, how differences of scale and appearance make a difference and other conundrums that separate the mindset of the theoretical physicist and the engineer.  

9. Conclusion:

Engineering and emphatically engineering education should not be sequestered in the house of technology. The frequent and even typical deployment of engineering to this venue rests upon several misunderstandings. These include the belief that the utility of technology resides within technology itself and that the knowledge of where, when and how to use technology is a matter of free choice. It also presumes that engineering is just one species of a unified scheme of human learning aggregated under the STEM disciplines.  In fact engineering has similarities and close connections with the humanities to the extent that it can be called legitimately applied humanities.  

As applied humanities, engineering is the practical, concrete, material expression of human choice and value; the results of engineering practice are manifest in numerous genres (organised under the CDIO rubrics) — and the realization of human drives and aspirations whether base or noble. For these reasons engineers need to be comprehensive and open thinkers, creative innovators, and purveyors and guardians of the collective wisdom of humankind.

Nothing close to this tall order can be achieved if engineering education is conceived and carried out fundamentally as the training of advanced technicians and problem solving calculators. Engineers need to be thinkers who can address the broad range of issues affecting the human condition in order to offer material responses that correlate with the aesthetic, cultural, economic, ethical, political and social discourses that also contribute to sustaining the past and making the future.

For this to happen the humanities education of engineers must be integrated uniquely with the elements of the curriculum that teach problem solving and the skills of technology. Engineering education cannot import liberal arts courses taught in other arenas of the curriculum but must provide experiences in the humanities that resonate with the concerns of engineering practice, both from the perspective of course content and the pedagogical style of questioning.

It has been suggested that an effective way to achieve the multifaceted objectives mentioned here is to study the classical texts from world civilizations in order to discover just how the broad range of theoretical and practical concerns, discussed now under the categories of the STEM disciplines, came into human consciousness.

The benefits of this approach are several-fold. On the one hand, science and technology are situated on the continuum of human action, culturally and historically. This removes the conceit, prevalent among those who cannot imagine a life without the availability of modern technology, that those who lived in earlier ages were primitives in comparison with ourselves.  Limited by this shortsighted modern view engineers, no less than anyone else, are vulnerable to Santayana’s dictum.  But more than that when technology is one’s only window on the world diverse aspects of the human condition become invisible and for an engineer the responsibilities inherent in CDIO are less likely to be met.

On the other hand humanities education will, when effectively integrated with the purposes of engineering education, enhance and clarify the calculative and procedural aspects that are essential to high quality engineering practice.  Certified, licensed professional engineers guarantee to the public in the present and future that our devices, utilities, machinery and infrastructure is and will be to the greater good.  History has shown unfortunate times when this guarantee was not redeemed, generally with catastrophic consequences.  These events to some extent may have resulted from engineers looking at matters too narrowly.

A joke that went around some years ago contained the statement attributed to a recent engineering school graduate: “Four years ago I couldn’t even spell injinor and now I are one.”  This joke fondly embraced the disdain for the humanities that C. P. Snow lamented while proclaiming the idea that dumb engineers would be very effective without the niceties of the liberal arts because of their calculative and problem solving skills.  

It is time to overthrow any remnant of this view and make the study of classical texts a prominent feature of engineering education.