1.8 Why educate engineers? Intellectual stimulation

To provide an intellectually stimulating education

There was a time when the primary purpose of a university degree programme was what we might now call ‘general education’. The experience was intended to challenge students to think, rather than to accumulate specific knowledge or skills. This motive still survives in many Arts and Humanities disciplines and is still passionately championed by quite a few universities around the world which offer, for example, a ‘great books‘ programme [e.g. St Johns College, and Shimer College (originally affiliated with the University of Chicago and contiguous with Illinois Institute of Technology) both in the USA, http://www.sjc.edu/  and http://www.shimer.edu/]. There is no reason why a degree programme centred on engineering or science should not offer a similarly challenging and rewarding experience. One of the implications of such an approach is that the content or subject matter is of only secondary importance compared to the skills involved in understanding or interpreting it. And of course any programme designed to encourage thinking has to have some subject matter. Why should it not be related to engineering or science, rather than poetry, politics or philosophy? The Thayer School at Dartmouth College has a mission which meets some of these aspirations. Founded in 1867 by Sylvanus Thayer, the School is one of the USA’s oldest professional schools of engineering. Thayer believed that engineering in the context of a liberal arts education could provide the single best preparation for addressing the world’s problems, and this remains at the core of Thayer School’s educational mission. Undergraduates are grounded in the liberal arts and rooted in the humanities. Their engineering sciences major is part of the Dartmouth Bachelor of Arts program, and many of them integrate their engineering work with other sciences or even studio art. [http://engineering.dartmouth.edu/academics/undergraduate]

The Liverpool Active Learning Lab
The Liverpool Active Learning Lab

I could happily construct a technically-based Great Books programme. It would include Collapse by Jared Diamond, Marshall McLuhan, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, one of Richard Dawkins’ books, James Lovelock on Gaia, David King and David MacKay on climate change, ….

Education is a process involving two sets of participants who supposedly play different roles: Teachers who impart knowledge to students, and students who absorb knowledge from teachers. In fact, as every open-minded teacher discovers, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their teachers, by challenging the teachers’ assumptions and by asking questions the teachers hadn’t previously thought of. [Jared Diamond in “Collapse” (2005)]

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