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ENGINEERING AS A LIBERAL ART: an address to the Edinburgh International Cultural Summit (The Debating Chamber, Scottish Parliament; Edinburgh, Scotland; 14 August 2012)
14 August, 2012

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ENGINEERING AS A LIBERAL ART: an address to the Edinburgh International Cultural Summit (The Debating Chamber, Scottish Parliament; Edinburgh, Scotland; 14 August 2012)

Madam Presiding Officer, Ministers, Delegates, Friends and Colleagues:

I will talk today about Engineering as a Liberal Art. 

In classical antiquity the Liberal Arts were considered to be “the collection of subjects and skills that are essential for a free person to master”[1]. This is what one would need to know in order to participate in civic life and in public debate. The aim of the study of the liberal arts was to produce “a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person.”  The original core liberal arts were Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic, the Trivium, which was extended during medieval times to include the Quadrivium, namely Mathematics, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy (and astronomy, let us not forget, also included at the time the most essential study of Astrology).  During the Renaissance, the Trivium was recast as Studia humanitatis. It excluded logic, and added to the traditional Latin Grammar and Rhetoric the subjects of History, Greek, and Moral Philosophy (or Ethics), and, most importantly made Poetry a pillar of Liberal Arts education. 

In one way or another we are still adhering today to the basic approach inherited from the Renaissance, namely the grounding of humanistic education in classical languages and literature – though much of what we call Liberal Arts today also includes elements of the exact sciences, the life sciences, and areas that have emerged on the periphery of the traditional humanistic disciplines, such as Sociology and Psychology. 

We seem to agree, however, that what is technical, professional and related to applied science or engineering does not really belong.  It is not part of what we consider Liberal Arts in most implementations of present-day academic education. By extension and by practice, we have declared that Engineering, Engineering Design and Computing are not among the subjects and skills that are essential for a free person to master.  They do not belong inside the body of knowledge that one requires in order to participate in civil society.  One can be more or less completely ignorant of matters of engineering, and yet be considered by this definition virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate to a fault.

This is not a new problem, of course.  While masters of the visual arts, as one example, have struggled for decades with technical matters of geometry and perspective to develop and advance their own discipline – most of their audience, including their patrons and the learned elites, enjoyed new architectural constructs, paintings of these constructs, new tools and new devices, with no or little understanding nor reflection on the principles that govern them or their theory of operation.   Similarly, for many decades we have educated and certified university graduates who drive and are being driven, and who fly from continent to continent without the slightest understanding of internal combustion or automatic control or aerodynamics.  And while writers, poets and painters kept assessing the impact of technology on our lives, more often than not they focused on the outwardly manifestations of new machines and new processes, not on their internal machinations. 

Let us also admit… in the same breath… that on the other side, so to speak; in the engineering education world – as it has evolved since the late 1800s; and as it was fundamentally re-oriented after World War 2 – isolation of young engineers-in-training from the humanities, from the classics, from literature and poetry, from art, and even from languages and grammar, was not uncommon.  When I was educated in Tel Aviv University in electrical and electronics engineering in the early 1970s, there was not a single class which was not technical or scientific or engineering-oriented in the whole curriculum; and while the situation in most of Europe, the USSR and the then Soviet Bloc nations, and America was not that extreme, exposure of future engineers to non-engineering subjects, including the so-called Liberal Arts, was very limited.  

When Liberal Arts were considered for the engineering curriculum, they were often appended under the assumption that the artistic, literary, linguistic and philosophical faculties of the poor souls who elected to become engineers must be so defective and suppressed, that we should under all circumstances segregate these engineering characters away from those who are blessed enough to desire to be serious about such matters, namely the students in the School of Art and Sciences.  

However, after several decades of following this dismissive doctrine – all over the world, engineering schools started to understand the folly as well as the practical limitations that such a restricted viewpoint would inflict on future engineers.  A major shift took place, to the point that in most engineering curricula, such as the one at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where I have spent the majority of my life  – and in most Western institutions – some 1/3 of the time and effort in engineering schools is now devoted to writing, speaking, reading literature, studying foreign languages, and engaging in a large spectrum of studies, allowing students a selection of courses, experiences and sequences in history, politics, sociology, philosophy and psychology.  We are producing at least, if not well educated, at least widely exposed individuals.  Moreover, in many schools, mostly in America and Western Europe, engineers are no longer relegated to Liberal Arts classes for their own underdeveloped ilk.  Rather, they participate in the same classes offered to all others on the same subjects. Increasingly you even see attempts to cross boundaries in the other direction – to offer for instance a class on Music Processing and Technology, open to all students of a university; to develop classes such as Game Theory and the History of the Viet-Nam War, again, for all students. 

However, let me ask in turn, how much engineering and technology can we expect in the arsenal of a person who will have graduated in 2020 in Art or Literature or Music or Theater and Film?  I am talking about individuals who train to become teachers and writers and visual artists.  It is true, of course, that there is nowadays much more in the curricula of these “non-technical” areas that is technological and engineering-related than what we would find in the same curricula a decade or two ago.  Yet it is very easy to make the argument that, by and large, we are not yet at all really serious about technical literacy among Liberal Arts majors. 

Today, in almost all schools of engineering and technology, we employ individuals specifically trained in English and other languages to teach engineers how to write.  We employ individuals who have had rigorous training in Philosophy to teach engineers Ethics.  We send engineering students, as a matter of course, to classes in the Arts that are taught by individuals with advanced degrees, PhDs, MFAs, to benefit from their expertise.  

However, show me the wireless communication professor who teaches students of theater; show me the computer scientist who teaches students of music.  These are very rare, not completely but almost non-existent. There is a dramatic asymmetry in the ways that we treat the needs of engineers and the needs of those whom we label, often quite mistakenly, “non-technologists.”  The assumption is that you really do not need professionals to teach engineering and technological literacy to writers, but you do need professionals to teach writing to engineers.  When you suggest to engineering educators that they have an obligation, a real duty in fact, to walk to the school of Art and Sciences and to the School of Music, (and incidentally also to the School of Law and the School of Nursing and Applied Health), you often sense a very dismissive tone.  “These people over there… they do not have the background; they do not possess the propensity; they would not understand us.”

Except that they would.  “They” will have to. In fact, they will not be “non technologists” for too long, and they may have ceased to be “non technologists” already.  The prevalence and penetration of technology; the continued expansion of network technology and wireless communications; the still ever-decreasing prices of computing, digital processing, and storage; and the opening of new frontiers in areas as different from each other as entertainment technology and gaming on one hand, and the intersection of engineering, computing, and the life sciences on the other; all these mean that neither computer science nor much of what engineers do nowadays, will continue to be the exclusive domain of computer scientists and engineers.  It is not uncommon to see a talented child these days who is capable of designing and implementing a mobile robot of complexity, navigability and dexterity that required graduate education only 15 years ago. 

The artists are already programming, and in time they will not only program more, but also develop their own programming languages and computing tools.  As we move forward, broadly and expansively, to embrace wearable electronics and implanted electronics, and true human-machine communication based on automatically sensed and measured biological signals, the ability to understand technology deeply and the ability to engage in engineering design may define the difference between the citizen of the past and the citizen of the future. Between the 85 year old grandmother who may still need some assistance in manipulating electronic mail and her 21 year-old grandson, in the case of my family a Sociology major, who uses a plethora of hand held-devices, tablets and forecasting programs to manage and optimize logistics for youth camps across Canada’s six time zones.     

The important caveat is that it is in our hands whether these developments in education and the structure of our academic system will be imposed on us by the demands of the markets, or we will have the courage to make them on our own, now.  We may elect to be dragged into re-inventing our system of academic education, for engineers and non-engineers alike, step by hesitant step, ineffectively, by dribs and drabs, reacting hurriedly to real or perceived crises, or… we can choose to make it happen judiciously, by design, under our control to the extent that we can achieve control; using the best of what we know about education and social change; trying to anticipate and test and correct, rather than react to pressure.  

It is hard to believe that in the face of what technology and engineering have wrought in the last 25 years, we will continue to teach technology and engineering conceptually in 2030 the way we have done that in 1950 or even 1980.   The same observation goes, perhaps even more so, for the disciplines that have been gathered as of late under the Liberal Arts label.  We engineers, we computer scientists, believe that our disciplines have indeed become part of the subjects and skills that are “indispensable for a free person to master;” that they are fundamental to what one needs to know “in order to participate in civic life and in public debate;” that they are a vital part of what must be possessed in order to produce “a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person.”  And whereas the original core Liberal Arts were historically Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic, then to be joined by four others, the Liberal Arts today include technological literacy, engineering design, and the fundamentals of computing. Technological literacy for all, engineering design for all, and computing for all.   Since the emergence of these relatively young disciplines we, their advocates, practitioners and educators, were not considered part of the Liberal Arts family.  For the progress of our society and for the suitable preparation of the next generation to meet its responsibilities and challenges, respectfully, or perhaps even a bit disrespectfully, we ask to enter.  

Sources

[1] The New International Encyclopedia (1905) Arts, Liberal, 1905, on-line: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_New_International_Encyclop%C3%A6dia/Arts,_Liberal See also: The Liberal Arts, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts

[2] H. Vincent Poor: “Engineering as a Liberal Art: Taking a Broad View,” Princeton University, Eta Kappa Nu THE BRIDGE Magazine, Spring 2007 http://www.ecedha.org/newsletter/issue2/pdfs/engineering_as_liberal_art.pdf

[3] Shirley Ann Jackson: “Engineering and the Liberal Arts,” – Designing the Future: A Summit on Engineering Education, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts; Saturday, March 31, 2001

http://www.rpi.edu/president/speeches/ps033101-smithcoll.html

[4] “Top engineer calls integration of liberal arts and engineering essential,” Union College, June 3, 2012

http://www.union.edu/news/stories/2012/06/top-engineer-calls-integration-of-liberal-arts-and-engineering-essential.php

 

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Moshe Kam ( m.kam@ieee.org ) ECE Department, Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA
The opinions expressed on this website are the opinions of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the IEEE