Humanizing Engineering


In my last post entitled Engineering the Humanities, I suggested that some aspects of how the humanities are evolving appear to be less due to the introduction of digital tools and new technologies, but rather due to an osmotic leak from engineering culture. Engineering culture manifests scholarship and building in the same human being. Now, I'd like to move in the other direction following an earlier post where I had previously visited the homes of digital humanities researchers. So, what is missing from engineering education? Lots. Let me pick some big ones: philosophy, history, writing, and language. In my area (computer science), history is virtually non-existent. Occasionally, a hat comes off in the general direction of early digital machine architectures, but what about analog computing, which has existed for millennia? One might say that analog computing is not general purpose, but when did "general purpose" matter when the goal of engineering is to solve a specific set of problems (e.g., Vannevar Bush's differential analyzer)? History is critical to contextualizing engineering and understanding its role in society. Don't get me started on writing. IĀ  vividly recall an experience I had many years ago when reading something written by an English professor. The text was clear, concise, and I understood what was being conveyed. It was pleasantly shocking, contrasted with the dry prose in my discipline. Methods for clear communication and the approaches needed for writing are situated within the humanities. I spend a good deal of time editing what students have written. And, yes, my own writing could use a lot of improvement. Then, there is philosophy. Many of us who read and write discipline-specific scholarly literature have the word "Philosophy" in our degree titles. I take that seriously--it means that owning such a degree, we should be aware of the areas within philosophy and questions that continue to hound us 2500 years after they were posed. The key to philosophy is to ask questions. What? Why? How? It is a bit childlike at the core, but the academy is founded upon questioning. There may not be answers, but there will always be questions.