Liberal Education: Designing Lives and Careers Anew

Lance Schachterle
Tennessee Technological University
Cookeville, TN - March 2-3, 1998
Symposium on Technology Communication and Culture

My specific assignment for this evening was to try to offer "a fresh perspective on the connection between engineering and the humanities." What especially interested me about this assignment was the request to discuss the relationship between engineering and the humanities, as opposed to (for example) engineering or science and the liberal arts. One of my principal assertions in this talk is that it is not helpful to oppose engineering and the liberal arts. One of the several arguments I will try to make is that both engineering and humanities, properly understood, constitute different tracks of a liberal education. Meaningful undergraduate education in either engineering or the liberal arts (of which humanities is a principal part) is genuinely liberal education as I shall define it.

My interest in discussing these issues arises personally from my dual position professionally as professor of English and as Assistant Provost at a technological university. In recent years I have increasingly been interested in a debate, which seems to grow both sharper and more futile, between those who view the conventional interpretation of the liberal arts as prerequisites for both personal development and successful contributions to society, and those who make equally exclusive claims for engineering, science, and technology.

For example, no issue passes in the Journal of Liberal Education (the publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities) without a president or dean asserting that the traditional liberal arts (often defined effectively just as the humanities, arts and perhaps social sciences) remain the preferred course of study best suited for preparing individuals for rich and successful personal lives. In the view of such writers, without saturation in the study of, as Yeats would have it, "monuments of unaging intellect," college students are ill prepared to deal with the vicissitudes of personal and public life. I even find among colleagues teaching in the humanities at institutions like my own, an attitude that the humanities are a necessity within such a curriculum to provide an antidote-not a complement or enrichment-to the prevailing emphasis upon technology.

At the same time I find in the flagship journals of the engineering education profession, such as ASEE Prism, articles like "Changing Paths" (October 1996) which points out that increasingly many of the best graduates of engineering programs are being hired by firms in finance, business and the law-provinces which the articulate proponents of the usual liberal arts often suggest are the natural provinces for their graduates. Recently, Joel Moses, Provost of MIT, indicated that fully one third of MIT's undergraduate engineering majors go on to medical school. And they are being hired almost exclusively for their technical prowess. Thus the battle seems to be fully joined between the liberal arts (again, in many minds, predominantly the humanities, arts, and social sciences) and engineering, as to which offers students the best preparation, for the fullest social contributions and personal satisfaction.

I have tried, in a number of essays and presentations at professional conferences over the last several years, to develop a somewhat different point of view. This paper is yet one more attempt to try to get that point of view right. The main point I wish to argue is that both engineering/science/technological studies and humanities/arts/social science studies constitute different approaches to liberal education. Before trying to develop that argument, let me offer a few definitions. Engineering I take to be the human process to design and make objects of use, useful both to the designer and hopefully to a larger constituency. The humanities and arts similarly, in my view, are concerned with design, but here it is the design and production of representations of things. Learning to design and produce objects or representations of objects or activities requires a grounding in the liberal arts.

A "liberal education" is more difficult to define, for the phrase conveys various meanings. In my experience, "Liberal Education" conjures up at least three distinctly different thoughts. I would like to explore and critique each of these initial constructions of "Liberal" Education: 1) the historical, 2) the societal, and 3) the political.

  1. The Historical. Etymologists trace the original of "Liberal" in our context back to the Latin "Liber," or "free," explaining that in the Middle Ages, a "Liberal Education" conferred literacy and thus a status freeing the person (inevitably a male) from possible physical servitude. A liberal arts education based on the mastery of writing inevitably valued mental skills, and was set over against training in the mechanical or useful arts, which stressed manual skills. The foundations of this Liberal Education rested in the "Trivium" of Grammar (structure of language), Rhetoric (structure of persuasion) and Logic (structure of arguments), which in modern terms forms the basis for literate communications. Acquiring this foundation led to the academic degree of Bachelor of Arts. Further study might involve specialization in the professions of Theology, Law or Medicine, or in the four sciences constituting the "Quadrivium"-arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

  2. The Societal. In America, as in many other countries, pursuing the liberal arts connotes a sense of broad and unspecialized preparation for social and professional responsibilities, in the absence of any "vulgar necessity to get a job" after the Bachelor's degree. Such liberation from vocational exigencies arises from different mixes for different students of personal self-confidence, a genuine drive to learn across a changing spectrum of interests, and the absence of any pressing necessity for immediate employment. Traditionally, as in some European cultures, a Liberal Education is regarded as preparation to engage in a range of social and professional obligations, and thus to secure the freedom to consider various roads before making a commitment to a specific direction. Most important, such flexibility, exercised for four or more years, affords the opportunity to investigate closely the achievements of the collective human past before setting one's own personal direction.

  3. The Political. Staying free from commitments, as described above, does not appear to all observers as socially beneficial. "Liberal" has never been a favorite political qualifier, since (as Raymond Williams points out in his classic study Keywords) "liberal" can connote "not rigorous," "undisciplined," and even "licentious" as well as "free." (Keywords, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985 p. 149)) "Liberal" has become even more suspect recently as market-driven policies have become ascendant. The move to the right or to the center leaves "Liberal Education" suspect in many quarters, because of political associations linking "Liberal" (to quote Williams) to "the senses of lack of restraint and lack of discipline," as well as "the sense of a (weak and sentimental) generosity" (Keywords, p. 150) aiming to redistribute power or wealth away from those who regard themselves as their primary originators.

Now to critique these positions.

  1. The Historical. We can use today two characteristics of the traditional grounding of Liberal Education in the Trivium and Quadrivium. First, this program of study-both in its traditional form and in appropriate modern reformations-reminds us that any worthwhile education is based upon the discipline of learning, of remembering, and of using a body of basic skills. These tools tell us much about what values prevail in the society of which the students are a part. Second, in the broadest terms, the Trivium of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic (again the liberal arts) encompasses basic literacy and communication skills still requisite as the foundation for any modern education, professional or otherwise. Similarly, the traditional Quadrivium can easily be translated into modern terms as the broad study of the physical world-as Science, in short. Combining foundation studies in literacy (and today we would need to add numeracy) with more specialized study in an area of physical nature remains one sound formulation for a modern Liberal Education.

  2. The Societal. Viewing a Liberal Education as a ticket to a certain social status certainly has long been a part of the attraction for many students and families, and this complacent characteristic of the Liberal Arts is probably most troubling and irritating to those investing in technological education. Yet I believe the fundamental sense here is sound: that students well grounded in the Liberal Arts can apply themselves successfully to many different professional opportunities, often within the compass of the same person's career. For example, nineteenth century Victorian gentlemen, grounded in the Oxbridge tradition of the Liberal Arts with its heavy emphasis on the classics, were able to form and manage the largest overseas Empire the world has seen. I believe we can still turn to a Liberal Education-suitably recast to reflect the values and studies identified today as most liberating-to formulate a new Liberal Education that continues to prepare young people broadly to respond to professional and career needs that are changing with increasing rapidity.

  3. The Political. The attribute of "Liberal" Education I take here to be most salient in our reformulation of Liberal Arts traditions is exactly those elements of fluidity and undogmatic responsiveness so irritating to political critics of Liberalism on both the Left and the Right. Raymond Williams' discussion of the term in Keywords, above, conveys a sense of flexibility and opportunism bordering on a lack of commitment. But one can argue that increasingly in technology a lack of commitment to established practices, a willingness to take risk and pursue opportunities, and above all-a recognition of the need to review dispassionately one's alternatives before acting-are an important stage of acquiring and practicing a Liberal Education. At its best, the political sense of "Liberal" suggests a healthy skepticism and openness to new approaches. Such decision-making, in a professional and even societal-political sense, can of course only be exercised advantageously if the practitioner has mastered the content materials of the modern Trivium/Quadrivium, and is driven by a desire to contribute actively to improving the society in which he or she lives.

The position developed so far argues that a Liberal Education suitable to a technological society must draw upon the foundation disciplines of communication and intellectual craft embedded within the Trivium (the liberal arts) and Quadrivium (the sciences, among others), along with preparing to contribute to worthwhile societal ends and achieving a critical sense of balance through a skeptical approach to political issues. More important, a contemporary "Liberal Education" must confer the freedom (remember "liberal" means "free") necessary to prepare students for productive careers and citizenship in a society where even the strongest traditional liberal arts education no longer suffices. The technology of the word still prevails but its "platforms" are far more numerous than printed texts. Electronic forms of both literacy and numeracy define liberation from servile constraints today as the capacity to con one's letters once did. A modern "Liberal Education" must therefore prepare students to work freely with electronic sources of knowledge, accessed throughout global networks, in a learning environment even more universal than once offered by literacy in the Latin classics read throughout Europe.

  • If my characterization of a modern Liberal Education rings at all true, why does the antagonism between the liberal arts (sometimes reduced to just the humanities) and technological education remain? Historically, I believe the reasons rest in a century old debate between well-known protagonists who sought to differentiate rather than subsume both humanistic and technological education. More recently the schism has been reinforced by the rise of cultural studies of science and the counter-attack best known in Gross and Levitt's Higher Superstitions! The Academic Left and Its Quarrel with Science.

    The process of separating humanistic and technological education goes back more than a century to Matthew Arnold's 1882 Rede Lecture "Literature and Science." Arnold wrote in direct opposition to the claims made two years earlier in Thomas Henry Huxley's "Science and Culture," in which the prominent scientist spoke in favor of barring "mere literary instruction and education" from a new scientific school founded in Birmingham. By stating flatly that "for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education" (p. 141), Huxley directly confronted Arnold, the Victorian high priest of literary culture, with a radical formulation of the importance of science-not only to providing material comforts and satisfying human curiosity, but to sustaining "a criticism of life" (one of Arnold's touchstone phrases).

    Arnold's response to Huxley is two-fold: literature includes written texts in all fields including mathematics and science, not just mere belles lettres; but more importantly, literature alone-not science-ministers to "our sense of conduct, our sense of beauty" (Arnold, 62). But Arnold immediately enlarges the argument by making his definition of literature broad and inclusive. To know the culture of the Romans and Greeks is to know their science, mathematics and technology as well as their plays, and such knowledge of the whole culture fulfills the Arnoldian touchstone rephrased in this essay as the capacity "to know ourselves and the world" through being able "to know the best which has been thought and said in the world." (Arnold, p. 56)

    This gentlemanly exchange between the two pre-eminent Victorian advocates of literature and of science occurred in the late 19th century just when both discourses were becoming academically institutionalizes: literature, especially in Great Britain, and science and technology, especially in Germany.

    In the 20th century, writers from outside literary scholarship have strongly shaped literature and science and technology studies, especially in terms of addressing broader cultural issues. Writing as a practicing scientist, J. Bronowski published several books and essays on the importance of science within cultural history, and in 1953 gave three lectures at MIT (published in 1956 as Science and Human Values) arguing that science and the humanities were more similar than different with respect to creative processes, empirical referentiality, and the formation of values. Even better known is C. P. Snow's 1959 Rede Lecture on the "Two Cultures," perhaps best consulted in the full form printed in his book Public Affairs and titled "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution."

    Snow confessed in a later essay that his ideas might have been better received had he used a title he originally considered but rejected: "The Rich and The Poor," which better articulated his underlying plea for social activism. Despite this and other failures to focus his argument sharply, Snow's contrast between the two cultures-"Literary intellectuals at one pole-at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists" (p. 15)-captured much attention. Snow's basic distinction between literary scholars and scientists proceeded along a few simple axes: backward vs. forward looking, pessimistic vs. optimistic, contemplative vs. active, respectively. These simple polarities aroused much pointed rebuttal. But Snow's basic thesis remains unambiguous: the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions offer the world's swelling masses a greater chance of ameliorating their physical conditions than does literary criticism. In one form or another, reference to the "Two Cultures," with its suggestive but inconclusive allusions as to how differing upbringings, languages, and values differentiate professional cultures, continues to inform much subsequent thinking about the relations of literature and science.

    What quickly became the "Two Cultures Debate" became institutionalized-at least for a decade or so and at least in England and North America-in both academic and semi-popular discourses. The English critic, F. R. Leavis, reacted with an intensity many thought excessively personalized against Snow. Much of Leavis' bile flowed from Snow's incessant name-dropping and embracing of the mantle of the Oxbridge power structure, a maneuver which made clear that if to Snow literature no longer was knowledge, science and technology were still very much power. Other, more temperate responses to Snow and Leavis include the novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley's 1963 Literature and Science, which sought to distinguish between the two pursuits by contrasting private (literary) and public (scientific) discourses, and the biologist Sir Peter Medawar's 1968 "Science and Literature," which argued that "Imagination is the energizing force of science as well as poetry, but in science imagination and a critical evaluation of its products are integrally combined. To adopt a conciliatory attitude, let us say that science is that form of poetry (going back now to its classical and more general sense) in which reason and imagination act together synergistically." (p.18)

    The debate between these protagonists-Thomas Henry Huxley, Matthew Arnold, C.P. Snow being probably the best known-boils down to the argument that in humanities people learn "how to be" while in engineering and science and technology, they learn "how to do." While I think we would all recognize there's some truth in this distinction, the opposition seems to me ultimately to be fruitless. From Robert Pirsig's book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I suggest adopting a technique the author found very helpful when facing the conflicting horns of such a dilemma. It is the Zen process of "mu," or "unasking the question." The process of "unasking the question" requires the pursuer of intellectual inquiries to step back for a minute, and to try to place the question leading to the dilemma into a larger context. If you know the book, you recall that Pirsig found this process helpful as he tried to understand the history of Immanuel Kant's resolution of the dilemma between the empiricists and the idealists, as well as among the ancient Greeks, the debate between Aristotle and Plato and their followers. Furthermore, Pirsig's unasking the question-placing it into a broader context-was the essential step he was able to take to solve for himself his own principal intellectual dilemma as narrator in the book, the question of whether quality was subjective or objective.

    When we unask the question, as posed by the tradition of exclusive limitations from Huxley and Arnold through Snow, in my view we may see that both the humanities and arts and engineering and technology have in common an essential human quest-to solve problems. Problems faced by the humanist and the engineer may well indeed be different, and certainly the external validation of the quality of the solution is different. When the engineers who designed and made the Titanic used inferior quality metal bolts to keep the plates of the hull in place (as has recently been discovered) there was nothing merely subjective about the grave failure of their mistake. On the other hand, clearly it is possible for different viewers to have very different assessments of any of the several artistic representations of the consequences of the engineers' misdesign that are available to us presently on stage and film.

    I believe in an environment like this it is not necessary to argue that engineering involves problem solving. I would like thus to balance what I assume is an understanding of engineering as problem solving with an example of problem solving in the humanities and arts. This year, my colleague and good friend, Professor Susan Vick of the WPI Humanities and Arts Department, had a significant problem to solve. She wished, for the major annual student theatrical production, to resurrect and revive the ancient Greek play Medea. Further, pursuing her interests in the adaptation of various electronic media, especially projection systems which offer virtual reality theater, she wished to make full use of modern media. The result was a production she called Medea/Media. She was kind enough to offer me the following statement about how she defined and addressed the problems inherent in her project, and designed an appropriate solution.

    "Theater engages all of you, on your feet, continually problem solving and many times making it to opening night by the skin of your teeth. And most of theater comes from what begins as a work of literature, dramatic literature, which only finds its full voice on the stage and through the contributions of many, many others. Theater is the most collective of the art forms. Playwrights may write in a vacuum with much angst and a bottle of booze, but the time comes when it must find life from other contributors.

    Inevitably comes that wrenching moment when the script must be handed over to someone else. To do that you have to have the play somewhat finished and that requires getting it done: maybe never to your satisfaction, but it has to go on to the lab where it will be dissected, regurgitated, swirled through the petrie dish of examination and experimentation, and ultimately having its findings shared in public.

    We say of the art that playwriting is not writing, but re-writing. Staging a play makes similar demands, which means re-staging and re-hearsing[sic] until you get it right! Actually you don't ever get it right with so many people involved but you do your best. Doing theater is hard work. But it's driven by an idea that a group of people embrace as important enough to spend endless hours helping to get on its feet.

    Theater is the result of a long process which begins with the empty page."

    To sum the argument to this point, both humanities/arts and technology/ engineering involve design. Engineers, like all effectively-educated people, need both to know and to do. Thus I would argue that the trivium of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic must be updated to encompass the grammar and logic of computer language and the rhetoric of computer presentations. Happily we have all experienced how the current generation readily embraces the new forms of communications. But as educators, the responsibility still falls upon us to articulate for our students how the new disciplines within the Trivium and Quadrivium must be redefined, studied, mastered and put to good use. The October 1996 issue of the ASEE Prism on "Evolving Paths" usefully surveyed the new careers becoming available to well-educated engineers (pages 23-28.) The gist of the article is that new and different careers are quickly opening up for well-prepared engineering students in disciplines traditionally (at least in the US) assumed to be the province of the traditional liberal arts. These careers increasingly attracting engineering undergraduates include law, medicine, finance and business, and the visual arts. Established professionals in each of these fields have learned that engineering students have mastered skills in identifying and assessing data, interpreting the results, and making decisions based on their interpretations that can be translated into new career areas. In short, engineering students increasingly are regarded as achieving the broad, "liberal" background necessary for success in both technological and non-technological fields.

    It may be worthwhile to explore these attributed of a new Liberal Education" more closely. The following five elements characterize for me the essence of the new "Liberal Education":

    1. Understanding how knowledge has been generated in the past, and will continue to be created, in two or three different areas of human creativity, one area of which should be understanding how the physical world around us functions. For example, how have people thought about the nature of matter in the past, what are the current views, and what techniques enable new questions to be pursued and new knowledge to be created?

    2. After acquiring the needed knowledge, asking the right questions, that will help create further knowledge. For example, given what engineering education has done for the last forty years, what directions should it now take? (Answer! ABET Engineering Criteria 2000)

    3. Acquiring the ability to access and use meaningful amounts of information and/or data in the areas of creativity of interest. For example, what are the traditions and key works in the literature of one's culture, and what are at least some of the concerns of current writers in that culture?

    4. Learning how to formulate and discuss questions, often open-ended, about whatever subject matters are of interest. For example, what policy issues are important to industrial competitiveness that could be examined and acted upon by looking at the trends in patent activity in one's country of origin?

    5. Finally, placing all the issues of professional interest into immediate and broader societal contexts, learning how to discuss such issues with individuals with different cultural perspectives, and probably most important, succeeding in presenting the results of these discussions in persuasive fashion. For example, discussing the impact of new technologies (such as amelioration of industrial pollution in Eastern Europe) across a diversity of cultural backgrounds in ways that lead to solutions that all constituencies are ultimately willing to buy into.

  • I am not suggesting that every student must succeed equally in demonstrating success in every outcome, and in every possible field of achievement. But I would argue that only an education that prepares the student for lifelong pursuit of the basic skills of seeking information, or identifying problems, of assessing patterns to support a defensible thesis, and of articulating the results effectively to a broad constituency is worth being called "Liberal" in the sense of preparing the student for the responsibilities of being free within a global technological society.

    The essential change in thought processes that, in my view, is needed to transform existing engineering education into the genuine "New Liberal Education" is the recognition that what really matters pedagogically are those learning achievements that may be generalized. These basic functions I alluded to above, and can be redefined as:

    Naturally but probably too often, engineering educators regard these steps in acquiring disciplinary mastery in their field as ends in themselves. Without taking away from the value of such mastery in a specific field, I argue that engineering educators serve their students best by making explicit how the whole process of engineering education described above is a foundation for broad achievement. That is, learning through the disciplines of the lab workbench, the relevant engineering science, and a synthesizing design activity can prepare the student for a fruitful career in the engineering discipline. But, in addition, such learning also instills techniques of observation, analysis, and decision making that are invaluable in fields as diverse as the social, political, economic, legal, medical, and business sciences, as well as increasingly in the visual and musical arts.

    The challenge and opportunity to effect such a revolution in engineering education is now at hand. In the US, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has recently taken the lead in reformulating expectations for engineering education. ABET has replaced its traditional approach to accreditation, with its heavy reliance on assuring students had passed a set of courses regarded as necessary for professional preparation, with a more general and flexible agenda. The new ABET Criteria 2000 specify what society and the professional world should reasonable expect engineering students to be able to do, rather than what courses they must pass. This realignment recognized that professional practitioners actually perform tasks, rather than pass courses-a distinction so obvious that it is surprising educators have not previously substituted demonstrable student performance achievements in real-world contexts for their reliance on course-work.

    ABET is challenging our profession to articulate our pedagogical missions in terms of what we want our students to do as beginning professionals, to devise ways of measuring how successful our students are in achieving these outcomes, and to use such measurements to continuously improve the fit among mission, curriculum and outcomes-in short, to import into education the best practices developed in quality control in industry. And equally important, the new ABET Criteria 2000 define the societal contexts within which engineering is practiced, thus in effect going beyond merely satisfying the goals of a modern Trivium with respect to mastering the fundamental tools.

    The eleven outcomes ABET requires engineering educators to demonstrate their students have achieved are as follows:

    1. an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering;
    2. an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data;
    3. an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs;
    4. an ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams;
    5. an ability to identify, formulate and solve engineering problems;
    6. an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility;
    7. an ability to communicate effectively;
    8. the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global/societal context;
    9. a recognition of the need for and an ability to engage in life-long learning;
    10. a knowledge of contemporary issues; and
    11. an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice.

    A brief inspection discloses that this list divides into two groups. The first deals with demonstrating abilities to use traditional disciplines (Number 1, "Apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering") and instruments (Number 11, "use the techniques, skills and modern engineering tools."). The second grouping deals with contextual (Number 6, "professional and ethical issues"; Number 8, "global/societal contexts") and communications outcomes (Number 7). Together, these two sets of outcomes (often distinguished in the US as hard and soft skills respectively) call upon engineering students and teacher to focus on the disciplinary and communications skills I have previously argued reside in the Trivium foundational model of the Bachelors degree.

    The strength of the traditional model of Liberal Education, however, derived from not placing greater value over either technical or communication skills; and the "hard" versus "soft" skills mindset has some dangers. Most observers of engineering practice would, I think, agree that in reality and in perception engineers have been markedly more successful in their technical achievements than in the broad public arena of policy-making. Professional engineers are not liberated to function effectively in society if they exercise their technical skills subserviently without having much say in the tasks they assume. Indeed, the claims of engineering to constitute a profession are often challenged exactly on this point; engineers usually are professional staff carrying out decisions made by their bosses.

    Achieving this liberating breadth to qualify engineers as senior decision makers has been a long sought goal, especially in American engineering education. From the end of the nineteenth century, engineering educators have written about the importance of providing an appropriate measure of the traditional Liberal Arts (by which they meant largely the humanities) to assure that engineers could speak at least some of the same language as Bachelor of Arts graduates. These new Criteria 2000 recognize the need to create learning environments in which students can achieve outcomes along a broader range of arts and sciences than just the technological. The Criteria properly challenge us as engineering educators to revise the whole curriculum to achieve the ends of communication and broad reflection.

    Solving the problem of "how much" humanities and social sciences belong in a Bachelor of Science degree will not be done effectively by continuing the current debate which centers around what portion of the conventional four years should be assigned to required courses in the humanities and social sciences, what is depth versus breadth in such subjects, and so on. The proper response is to expect everyone, regardless of discipline, engaged in helping students learn about engineering as a profession to attend to issues of communication, the cultural past, and even abstract ideas as in ethics. As the faculty at my institution, WPI, learned a quarter century ago, students will respond better to presentations that place technical and scientific matters in broader societal contexts if at least some of the advocacy for considering issues come from engineering, science and mathematics faculty along with those in other disciplines. (Anyone wishing to pursue this issue further could be served no better than to read any of the several books by the essayist and practicing civil engineer, Samuel Florman, whose lifelong work is effectively summarized in his most recent book, The Introspect Engineer.)

    Effecting a revolution in engineering education by creating a "New Liberal Education" drawing upon all eleven of the outcomes embodied in ABET Criteria 2000 promises to assure that engineers can learn to exercise judgment about policy as well as about engineering. Engineers need to learn how to trade off ideas across a broader intellectual span than is commonly the case now, and such an achievement will require communication and team skills-the assets conferred by Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic. Such a revolution would repair a deep schism in how engineering education is perceived internally and externally: as machine- or mind-driven. Again etymology is helpful in setting the context. "Engineer" in English, "Ingénieur" in French and "Ingenieur" in German all come from the same root: "Engin" or "Ingin." In English, the connotations of "Engin" accrued meanings around physical and mechanical attributes, culminating in the nineteenth-century association of "engine" with the steam engines-a glory of British engineering-that energized the Industrial Revolution. But even before the nineteenth century, in English "engineer" was strongly linked to working machines, just as "mechanical" was associated with repetitive and unimaginative physical labor. Recall that the rustic comics in Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night Dream are all respectable tradesmen but in the play are called, interchangeably, the "Mechanicals" or the "Clowns." The later association with "engines" and "engineers" (as on locomotives) generated problems of cultural identity and reputation that remain of concern to engineering professionals in the United Kingdom.

    In contrast, in most of Europe, "Ingin" developed etymologically through associations with "ingenuity," a set of connotations far closer to what engineers really do in terms of using their skills and judgments to solve practical problems. In many ways, Continental engineering education-especially in France with the Napoleonic legacy of "les Grandes Ecoles" offering a rigorous technically-based curriculum as preparation for careers in technology, industry, and government-is closer by far to the "New Liberal Education" than the legacy of engineering education in Anglo-Saxon cultures. As a point of differentiation, note that in the last decade the British polytechnics were subsumed as junior partners into the university system, while a "polytechnique" education conveys a preparation in which students achieve capabilities to exercise judgments about competing techniques for solving problems in many professional domains.

    Engineering applies ingenuity, in its manifold forms, into the embodiment of machines broadly defined as instrumentalities to effect solutions to problems. The "engine" versus "ingenuity" is a false and harmful dichotomy. But ingenuity is not enough; judgment, both technical and ethical, must govern its application. Mark van Doren's essay, Liberal Education (New York: Henry Holt, 1943) remains a classic study (at least for Anglo-Saxon cultures) because it articulates so well the traditional value of a Liberal Education based upon the classics while acknowledging the powerful challenge emerging from science. Van Doren is too traditionally grounded on the narrow definition of the liberal arts to grasp fully that historically the sciences were as much a part of the Trivium and Quadrivium as were the humanities and arts, and thus he relies largely on "letters" to develop for students the capacity to think and act for the common good. I suspect, however, that as he wrote during the involvement of the United States in World War II, he was especially anxious to present credible claims that Liberal Education nurtured right reason and action, and he seems to be uncertain how study of the classics would achieve such goals.

    For van Doren, at its best, study of the humanistic classics developed character and thus (somehow) ethics. But he seems insecure that such study, in his day, was well organized and directed, and could continue (as it had for Matthew Arnold) to assure the development of both intellectual and ethical competence. Too many of the claims for the traditional "Liberal Arts" rang hollow for van Doren: "The science we use liberates more minds than the classics we have, since we do not know how to use the classics....The humanist suffers most in our estimation when he fails to convince us he has a discipline. [Mastering a discipline, you may recall, is one of the first concerns of the Trivium.] The discipline of science may be narrow, but it is real. The study of literature is not rigorous enough to be real." (pages 56-57) Van Doren's argument cannot be fully summarized by the quotation above, but I believe his insight is helpful to this project to redefine "Liberal Education" within a technological society. Van Doren is reluctant to surrender the claim that an education grounded in "letters" will best liberate students to function effectively as citizens and professionals within their society. But the study of "letters" alone-by which I believe he means knowing about past cultures as embodied in their writing along with the capacity to use that knowledge in one's own life-he recognized is too subjective to guarantee an ethical life.

    Technology and science are different from the humanities because it recognizes the necessity of going beyond the subjective. "If science is master of the intellectual arts proper to the conduct of its affairs, then science is liberal too; and letters should learn from it how to be something better than the extra, the additional, the amateur army they now seem to be." (Liberal Education, page 51) Using the lab bench, the engineering sciences, and best practice to design pragmatic solutions to address competing needs and constraints will not guarantee ethics, but it will promote discussion of concerns beyond the subjectivity of the speaker. If post modernism demonstrates anything (at least to me), it is that the subjective by itself does not promote profitable discussions of concerns beyond the subjectivity of the originating advocate. Agreeing that there is "something out there" beyond the solipsistic mind assures a broader engagement of data and points of view. Perhaps not enough engineering students comprehend this enormous asset in their education, but a program to fully integrate the "hard" and "soft" skills can promote this outcome.

    Van Doran's Liberal Education yearns to obtain for old-fashioned liberal arts, grounded heavily in an uncritical study of the past, the necessary complement of studying the objective world through the theoretical and applied sciences. In a concluding section on "Vocation," van Doren dismisses as "unfortunate and false" the distinction between liberal and useful education (page 166). "If liberal education is concerned with truth, and technical education with things, then the two could teach each other. The first needs to be more conscious of its operations, and the second needs to be more theoretical than it is." (page 167) Even more to the point, he argues that "No antipathy appears between technical and liberal education if we remember that both are concerned with art" (page 167).

    Clearly, from previous references, van Doren sees art as human creativity exercised responsibly across many domains. Herein I believe the strongest case is made for the New Liberal Education embodying the critical skills of engineering as they interact with the capacity to contextualize problem solving socially. To effect this fusion, the requisite art is knowing, first, what are the productive questions to ask, and second, how can these questions best be addressed to provide answers to a given community. The generalizable assets conferred by engineering education-to gather data, find patterns, ask good questions, and frame alternative solutions subject to ultimate implementation dependent on trading off different constraints-create the artful education van Doren and others have sought. Such an education provides the discipline to know what problems are worth solving, and which questions are most productive to ask. Such an education provides no guarantee that the every answer will produce consequences that maximize social benefit. But a Liberal Education grounded in disciplined observation and responsive to the external world (including other people) will be most likely to assure a process of discovery and of societal review that will reduce risks as much as can be done in the absence of Eternal Verities that transparently show the way to certainty.

    In sum, I argue that the best "New Liberal Education" is one building upon cognition of both the internal and external worlds and of the best practices of identifying and solving problems that arise as humans continue to attempt to wrest the best living from that world. Learning to ask the most productive questions defines success within such an education. Van Doren pays the highest tribute to such a Liberal Education when he quotes William James' distinction between "liberal" and "literal": the latter defines an enslavement to the world as it is, the former liberates the liberally educated to use the skills of the Trivium and the Quadrivium to ask the important questions going beyond things as they merely are. Or to turn, in conclusion, to van Doren's quotation from Thomas Henry Huxley, the Victorian scientist and advocate for Darwin whose essays supporting a scientific education prompted Matthew Arnold's defense of "letters":

    "Huxley said that the liberal intellect was a steam engine 'with all its parts of equal strength, and in smooth working order, ready to be turned to any kind of work.' The image is depressing, not merely because it is mechanical but because it refers to the future: education is something to be intellectually cashed in. Liberal education is now." (Liberal Education, pages 68-69)

    Van Doren is wrong here, on several counts. The New Liberal Education is both now and for the future; the truly educated person can both be and do something. Huxley's well designed steam-engine, "in smooth working order," provides the liberating symbol of intellects able to bring to bear both "ingenuity" and the "engine" to solving our problems. Engineering education can become the "New Liberal Education." This reformation will occur when engineering students actively seek excellence equally in observing the world scientifically and solving technical problems, and in asking questions and defending the consequences of their judgments, both technically and societally.

    In terms of putting any of my suggestions into action for curricular change, we have before us in the new Engineering Criteria 2000 the opportunity and the serious challenge to address both engineering and humanities and the arts as part of liberal education. EC 2000, at least in its current state, no long will mandate a half year of study of the humanities and the social sciences in the engineering curriculum. Every program and institution seeking ABET accreditation after 2001 will be required to define its mission, to indicate how its curriculum supports that mission, and most importantly, to show how the success of the curriculum in fulfilling institutional goals is met through continuous student outcomes assessment. While such a radical revision in the way in which engineering accreditation takes place imposes serious demands on our time, creativity and energy, it also provides unprecedented freedom for institutions to revise their curriculum imaginatively. Those institutions, in my view, which are able to make the case convincingly that engineering should take its proper place as one of the liberal arts will be those which will be successful in the next millennium.


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    Last modified: Fri Mar 6 12:09:18 EST 1998