Building the ideal engineer

Beyond Utility
July 7, 1995

This is a strange book on an important theme. Short chapters. Often only two pages long. Some in an overblown American academic rhetoric (full of words and phrases like freedom, destiny, literacy and democracy, captivity, civic mission) that makes Europeans squirm slightly. Occasioned by the founding of a new and innovative programme of humanities for engineers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1989, the book does, nevertheless, raise many important issues concerning the education of engineers.

Rightly rejecting the notion that "liberal studies" is a residual category of disciplines that are not vocational, technical, or scientific, Moulakis examines responses in the United States to the perception of engineers themselves, and of employers, that the education of engineers is often too narrow. The object of additions to the technical curriculum he sees as being primarily those of helping students to become articulate in speech and writing and better able to exercise informed judgement, rather than to indoctrinate the young with traditional standards or pursue some trendy curriculum based on what is seen as politically correct or morally desirable.

Moulakis moves towards this position by examining and rejecting a number of unsatisfactory approaches. Gentlemanly cultivation, for example, or foppish social graces would be wholly unacceptable where the ideal engineer is seen as "a regular guy, a red-blooded American who stirs his coffee with his thumb". And yet highly developed industrial societies need fewer and fewer people to handle things, and more and more people (including engineers) to manipulate meanings. The paradox is that highly specialised industrial society must rest on a broad base of generic, standardised, nonspecialised knowledge and training, not on exclusionary elements of supposed high culture.

Moulakis is particularly effective in criticising the "great books" approach to liberal education advocated, for example, by Robert M. Hutchins, ("The best education for the best is the best education for all"), and of E. D. Hirsch whose notion of "cultural literacy" is of a mass of bits and pieces of information that might win prizes in media quiz programmes, but which are museum exhibits of the mind. Progressive education, too, gets short shrift. "Behind 'fundamental processes,' 'cognitional skills,' and 'critical thinking,' taught by a teacher who has himself been taught nothing but 'education,' there is nothing." Hence the desire of Hirsch and others to return to substantive learning. Current American obsession with "the canon" or core of essential liberal education can miss the point of pedagogical efforts to establish maturity of judgement, rather than to have purportedly desirable convictions, to master the style of a civilisation rather than to be simply well informed.

There are impossible contradictions, perhaps experienced more acutely in the US than, at present at least, in the United Kingdom in asserting a universal right of the cultural particularity of minorities and at the same time the universal rights of man. How the gap is to be bridged, the formal structuring of consensus, is, nevertheless, as important as language itself and needs to be addressed in the education of all people. To tolerate intolerance would be suicidal, just as a consistent relativism denies the basis of its own validity - like being told by a Cretan that all Cretans are liars. The Marxist analysis of culture is also swiftly dispatched, in that it becomes impossible to know what explains from what is being explained, as is "Herstory", the ruthlessly feminist approach that runs the danger of obliterating one cultural myth with another rather than cultivating a balanced perspective.

The notion that science contains its own morality, urged by Linus Pauling in the US as in the UK by C. P. Snow and J. Bronowski, is shown to be misleading. There is a distinction between competent technical information being fed into the political process and the business of political responsibility. What is required, Moulakis urges, is an understanding of the nature of scientific judgement, an analytical approach to how science is done, which can often best be acquired by stepping back from the process rather than through direct participation in it.

Perhaps the greatest enemy to liberal education of any sort is the attempt to "cover the ground": the "Sisyphian project of complete enumeration is but a prolongation of the widespread misconception that knowledge is primarily a matter of registering and filing away facts, as though facts were given and did not need to be established." Textbook knowledge in vocational education runs the risk of concentrating on the product of academic work, not the process or the producer. The bridge between the cultures will not be built by adding chapters to textbooks, or even by creating an interdisciplinary supertextbook; rather, it will be achieved by giving engineers an opportunity to know what it means to know in the manner of an historian or of a physicist, that is to say to understand a particular mode of human inquiry and its terms of reference. One cannot "learn how to learn" without actually learning something; but the object of liberal education should not be to create a Renaissance polymath, but rather to encourage the ability to place, evaluate, and appreciate whatever the graduate comes across. Moulakis's preferred approach is through text-centred classes that do not attempt to provide a complete university education but which, rather, complement in important ways the education of engineers through their technical and vocational studies.

Engineering education in the UK has been subjected to similar criticism to that in the US. One response to the former narrowness of technical studies has been to add further vocational subjects - usually in management, economics, and industrial sociology. More recently, the cry has gone up (from Enterprise in Higher Education) that more entrepreurialism is needed or (from the National Vocational Qualifications movement) that more transferable personal skills should be inculcated. Moulakis's book is a worthwhile reminder that studies concentrating more on purpose, intellectual approach, and disciplinary style can be both personally rewarding and professionally useful. Despite the manifest desire of students to enlarge their engineering studies (evidenced both by surveys and by the increasing numbers of school pupils taking a mix of arts and science subjects at GCE A level), and despite widespread agreement among faculty and administrators that some humanities are a desirable addition to engineering studies, many difficult administrative problems remain - such as making time available for humanities in a crowded curriculum; avoiding having subjects taught by people who cannot separate themselves for the purpose from the imperative to become more and more specialised for professional recognition; the related problem of offering adequate recognition and reward to those who do undertake the demanding task of adapting their disciplines for the education of engineers; and recruiting and holding on to gifted teachers. In discussing these gritty issues, as in offering a comprehensive, if idiosyncratic, analysis of the underlying cultural and pedagogic issues, Moulakis has much to offer to those, like myself, trying to provide an appropriate complement to the technical education of intending engineers.

Sinclair Goodlad is director of the humanities programme, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, London.

Beyond Utility: Liberal Education for a Technological Age

Author - Athanasios Moulakis
ISBN - 0 8262 0929 7
Publisher - University of Missouri Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 171

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