“Liberal Education Has Failed”: Reading Like an Engineer in 1960s America
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“Liberal Education Has Failed”
Reading Like an Engineer in 1960s America

Engineers are the chief revolutionaries of our time. . . . When engineers in greater numbers come to know explicitly what they are doing, when they recognize their dedication, they can join with alert humanists to shape a new humanism which will speak for and to a global democratic culture.

—Lynn White1

By its very nature, engineering is a normative practice. Engineers distinguish themselves from scientists and—as this essay investigates—perhaps also from humanists by building their imaginary world—the ought of technology—into the real world.2 But the mind’s eye of the engineer sees not [End Page 753] only diagrams, equations, and models of things. What engineers know is also formed by malleable assumptions about how society works, how it worked in the past, and how it will or will not change as a result of their interventions. How they know, moreover, comes not simply through cultural osmosis, on the job acculturation, or from the various familial relations, private organizations, and media that contribute to an individual’s worldview; rather, since the turn of the twentieth century, to a significant degree engineers’ social knowledge has been designed. Like diagrams, equations, and models, it has been instilled through credentialed training in the reading of social texts, sometimes guided by engineering faculty and at other times by specialists in the humanities and social sciences. Even among engineering educators, the normative dimension of this training often fails to attract serious deliberation. Engineering faculty consider the humanities and social sciences a necessary, but comparatively small, time commitment for fostering communication skills, good citizenship, and cultural finishing, while students often view such knowledge as irrelevant to their future careers.

Nonetheless, for almost as long as engineering careers in the United States have begun in the academy, reformers have targeted the humanities and social-science elements of their curricula to reinvent who engineers should be. The Mann report of 1918, A Study of Engineering Education, the first national study of engineering education, called for “humanistic” coursework, particularly the study of writings by prominent engineers, to instill “humane intelligence” and the “professional spirit.”3 Similarly, during the Great Depression, Robert Doherty developed his social-relations curriculum to mold engineers as agents of change.4 As David Noble has shown, the strongest call for enhanced social knowledge in the curricula of the 1920s and 1930s came from corporate employers who were convinced that a “liberal education gives power over men.”5 Yet another wave of reform, initiated by H. P. Hammond’s reports of 1940 and 1944, produced a new humanistic-social division within the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) to promote coursework that would help the young engineer “reach his own decisions in meeting the problems of his study, his work and his life; and, equally important, skill in learning from doing this.”6 Educators in the [End Page 754] burgeoning cold war research university—some trained in engineering disciplines, others in English and history—modulated these claims into “general education” for democratic citizenship.

This half-century of pedagogical change altered the manner in which engineering students encountered Plato’s Republic, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, and the like. But to the consternation of reformers, most engineers—preoccupied by an explosion in the scale and scope of scientific research—retained the view that the nontechnical was noncritical, and hence students followed their lead. Then, in the late 1960s, business-as-usual threatened to be upended as America’s culture wars challenged engineers’ foundational assumptions about technology and society.

A shake-up in engineering curricula began unassumingly when design advocates during the early 1960s responded to what they saw as an overemphasis on scientific training and a consequent loss of professional identity. Humanistic-social pedagogy appeared to be entering yet another turn in the cycle. But, sparked by the profession’s transformation in the cold war military-industrial complex and a flourishing of cultural criticism that gave the system its name, by 1967, reform had taken on an encompassing urgency. Engineers across the profession came to fear that they were losing authority over technology, and that this had as much to...


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