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Humanistic engineering.

To say that Carl Mitcham in "The True Grand Challenge for Engineering: Self-Knowledge" (Issues, Fall 2014) offers a strong critique of the current state of engineering in the United States would be an understatement. He presents a richly insightful and powerful indictment of the dominant paradigm of engineering education, culture, and professional practices. At the foundation of his indictment lies the idea that engineers need to do much more to connect the dots between the work they do and overall human well-being. And this cannot happen, he argues, unless engineers engage in humanities-informed critical reflection about what it means to engineer itself.

I wonder if Mitcham both underestimates the urgency for engineers to engage in such reflection, and overestimates what humanities faculty might want to or be able to do to help spark and inform this engagement.

Although the second Axial Age he mentions demands attention to techno-human relations, a third Axial Age is already looming on the horizon. In it, as Luciano Floridi observed in The Fourth Revolution, techno-techno relations will replace techno-human ones. Humans will become "redundant," "outside the loop." The large body of social science research underscoring how poor we are at decision-making helps bring this age ever closer. The intense race among automobile manufacturers to perfect self-driving cars is part of this general phenomenon of innovation cum self-distrust. But the more engineering effort contributes to the Internet of Things, the more pressing it becomes for engineers to think not only about sustainability--a difficult-enough responsibility already--but also about what kind of world this effort would create and the prospects for well-being within it. Would it be a world, to put it bluntly, worth living in?

Engineering in the United States is arguably resource-poor when it comes to reflecting on the grand challenge of self-knowledge. But the same can be said for the humanities with respect to thinking seriously and critically about technological innovation. For example, it is possible to get an undergraduate degree in philosophy without having to think deeply, if at all, about the engineered world. Even the most highly regarded ethics textbooks seem written solely for issues connected to the first Axial Age; it is the trolley problem that is the focus of ethical consideration, not the trolleys themselves. What numerous observers have noted about the average U.S. citizen also holds true of most philosophy students and faculty members; they are ill-prepared to address the difficult questions about value and well-being connected to technological design.

Amidst these sobering facts there is still some good news. More venues exist now than a decade ago for engineers, engineering educators, and those in the humanities to come into contact and have frame-of-reference-expanding conversations with one another. These include the Engineering and Liberal Education Symposium at Union College, now in its eighth year, and the Forum on Philosophy, Engineering, and Technology, of which Mitcham was a co-founder. Consciousness of the need for beginning engineering students to be able to frame problems as technical-social in nature--and not merely technical--is spreading, as are efforts to radically revamp introductory engineering design courses. Such changes are indeed at the margins, but one can imagine a "halo effect" coming from them that would contribute to accelerating change in entrenched practices and attitudes in engineering.

But it is still important to bear in mind that the percentage of women in both professional engineering and professional philosophy in the United States is roughly the same: 22 percent. For this accelerating change to happen, engineering and philosophy need to get their own houses in order with regard to increasing this percentage and that of other underrepresented minorities. For both of these professions, this is another Grand Challenge.

Diane P. Michelfelder

Professor of Philosophy, Macalester College Co-editor-in-chief, Techne: Research in Philosophy and Technology

Carl Mitcham offers a thought-provoking and much-needed discussion of the true grand challenge for engineering. I look at this from a European perspective and find that the issues raised regarding engineering education are virtually no different. Mitcham raises a number of issues, one of which is related to C.P. Snow's "two cultures" argument. I agree with him when he differentiates between the cultures of "science and the humanities" and "engineering and the humanities." I agree with him when he argues that all engineers need to become critical thinkers, become critically reflective, and become more than technological problem solvers. As elucidated by Andrew Feenberg: "engineers tend to be more at home with 'function' but have no place for meaning."

I would suggest, however, that there are also important issues to be considered relating to the concept of perception: of what is an engineer and what it is to be one. These perceptions can serve not only to shape the expectations of those attending engineering schools; they can and do affect the various curricula on offer. These perceptions about engineering tend to orientate toward a technical model denoting the concept of engineering and engineering education that, as Mitcham rightly points out, are distinctly lacking any education directed toward the humanities.

In schools across Europe, science education is perceived by the public, politicians, and students as an important subject for study. A good examination result in this subject in high school is, for the most part, considered to be a prerequisite for entry into an engineering degree. Moreover, science education-- and physics, in particular--is considered to be an area that will help to drive economic growth. For this reason, a lot of taxpayers' money is invested in research not just in science and engineering, but into ways and means for encouraging young people, and particularly females, to take up science and engineering careers.

Significantly, the same perceptions do not seem to apply to technology education, or "industrial arts," as it sometimes has been called, in the United States. This is a subject area that openly aligns itself with engineering education. The International Technology Education Association in the United States recently changed its name to become the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association. In Europe and elsewhere in the world, technology education tends to hang on to its industrial past. Even though a great deal of research is being done to change this emphasis, classroom practice tends to remain grounded in technical education, a curriculum having an emphasis on the development of workshop-based practical skills related to trades-based occupations. These perceptions--about school-based technology education being related to industry and science education being related to science and engineering--tend, in my view, to emphasize, perceptually at least, the science and humanities paradigm over the more important engineering and humanities paradigm offered by Mitcham.

I raise this not as a critique, but, rather, as something intended as complementary to the important and vital perspectives raised.

John R. Dakers

The Technology University of Delft

The Netherlands

Since the National Academy of Engineering publicly articulated its "14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century," many engineering educators have used its ideas to motivate their work. Prominent among them is a reflective response from a social justice perspective by Donna Riley, presented in an article titled "We've Been Framed! Ends, Means, and the Ethics of the Grand(iose) Challenges," published in the Fall 2012 issue of the International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace. Riley was concerned with the process surrounding the framing of the Grand Challenges, and also with the series of ethical questions it generated about the specifics of the challenges and the processes that gave rise to them.

For the sake of precision, the apparent "Grand(iose) Challenge" hyperbole put forward seems in need of epistemological clarification. The notion of "challenge" suggests that a particular phenomenon is or rather must be perceived by someone (epistemologically speaking) to constitute a challenge. Without a perceiving mind, there would be no "challenge." Hence, it would be more appropriate to speak of "challenge perception(s)." This is a main point made by Riley. She asks: Who chose the challenges? What were their underlying assumptions? Should the grand challenges be undertaken, and if so, for which ends? How should they be defined and pursued, and through use of which means?

Taken at face value, Mitcham's labeling of the "True Grand Challenge" seems fraught with the same epistemological imprecision as the "14 Grand Challenges." On closer inspection, however, such suspicion vanishes as Mitcham's main line of argument is of an axiological nature implicitly in line with Riley's questions. But more pointedly, he argues that "Engineers, like all of us, should be able to think about what it means to be human. Indeed, critical reflection on the meaning of life in a progressively engineered world is a new form of humanism appropriate to our time--a humanities activity in which engineers could lead the way." The author devotes substantial attention to a penetrating analysis of why such an endeavor has so frequently failed, and even worse, why it was programmed to fail due to the dominant epistemological core-periphery distinction in engineering education.

Mitcham shows how humanities faculty working in engineering schools struggle to justify their courses. He also shows how many of the opportunities for humanities provided by ABETs Engineering Criteria 2000 have been "lost in translation," leading to three ideal typical approaches to justify the value of the humanities: namely, an instrumental, an enhanced instrumental, and an intrinsic-value approach. Only the latter provides a conversation space for critical thinking and questioning circumscribed by the Socratic maxims "(Engineer) know thyself" and "The unexamined (engineering) life is not worth living." In sum, both the Mitcham and Riley articles provide a richness of material and original insights that supplement each other very well. They will no doubt stimulate further research on the "Grand Challenges" in the United States and elsewhere, both of an instrumental and a critical reflective nature.

In the end, there is hope that they might also be able to serve in pushing through a political agenda aiming at changing our unsustainable way of life related to what I consider to be the three Greatest Challenges of Humanity: climate change; the population bomb; and social injustice locally, nationally, and globally.

Steen Hyldgaard Christensen

Associate Professor, Aalborg University


I completely agree with Carl Mitcham that self-knowledge for engineering students and engineers is quite important. Engineering education in Japan, unfortunately, faces difficulties similar to those the author so ably explained. The technical community is concerned about the image of engineering in the public sphere and its limited attractiveness to students, but engineering programs, even if accredited by the Japan Accreditation Board for Engineering Education, almost never give us any tools to reflect on what it means to be an engineer. As graduate attributes and professional competency have been defined more strictly, engineering students and teachers are forced to accomplish many tasks to achieve these requirements in an overloaded curriculum. There is not enough room for integrating humanities and social sciences into the engineering curriculum.

Besides that, engineering students and faculty have a tendency to look on these courses as extra work. An imaginary dichotomy, known as humanities course and science course, created for convenience sake, has a certain influence among us. We are still subject to C. P. Snow's two cultures argument. Various improvements are required in the present situation.

These difficulties deserve to be overcome, because their settlement may finally lead us to a new point of view that encompasses the happiness and existential pleasure of engineers. Engineering institutes stress that all engineers have to give the highest priority to the safety, health, and welfare of the public. That is undoubtedly true. Then, who treats and realizes engineers' well-being? Usually, the public hardly pays attention to the happiness and existential pleasures of engineers. In some textbooks on engineering ethics, engineers sometimes seem to be regarded as if they may contribute to criminal negligence. This view is simply wrong, but suggestive. To be more precise, we might excessively consider engineers as special. All of us have to return to and draw attention to the simple fact that engineers are human as well as members of the general public. Humanities and social sciences will help us have this kind of self-knowledge.

However, I am a bit pessimistic of our current strategy. Depending on the enrichment of engineering education for engineering students may soon encounter some new difficulties, because all of us, including engineers, live in an already well-engineered world. Amid the enormous amount of engineering products and artifacts, how could anyone continue to be a bystander? We all ought to know about engineers and engineering activity, and about the sociocultural context associated with them more strongly than ever before.

Therefore, I think that engineering education for nonengineering students may be needed in the near future. As a matter of course, this is not a critically examined hypothesis. But there is no doubt that contemporary society has been designed and constructed by engineering activities, and because of this, both engineers and nonengineers should have self-knowledge and also should keep trying to increase mutual understanding through engineering education.

Atsushi Fujiki

Assistant Professor of Liberal Arts

Kurume National College of Technology, Japan

Mitcham proposes that engineers need to examine what it means to be an engineer, and, further, that the humanities may offer the educational means to such self-knowledge. Although others have examined what should be done on the engineering side, I'd like to look at the role that humanities can play in enhancing this process of reflective engineering.

Take the case of philosophy, a privileged domain for reflective practice. Why is engineering wholly untouched by philosophy? The blame is not just with engineers and other professionals.

For many years, philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, has failed to consider public issues. As a result of its own increasing professionalization, philosophy has become a form of scholasticism in which philosophers discuss with great sophistication of detail, issues that are not necessarily relevant to the fundamental questions of being human. Philosophy has often been socially and epistemologically ineffective. As Bertrand Russell put it in "The Place of Science in A Liberal Education," philosophy lived in a "certain self-absorption." Thus it was not surprising that professionals found it uninteresting.

Fortunately in the last three decades or so, philosophers have begun to work to break philosophy out of its academic isolation. But more must be done for philosophy to become more than a technique of logical and conceptual analysis.

Andoni Ibarra

University of the Basque Country

From my observations in a developing country, I agree with Mitchum that interdisciplinary approaches to engineering and engineering education are lacking. Fortunately, the negative effects of economic crisis are forcing some changes, including mental changes. More and more broad-minded philosophers, sociologists, and engineers are turning to interdisciplinary research to improve the situation. They use websites to communicate with others, and they are contributing to fundamental change. They work to influence the model and practice of education, even from the elementary school, to introduce more integrity between knowledge on nature and culture. When the critical mass is achieved, the transformation will be effective.

Maria Kostyszak

Institute of Philosophy, Wroclaw University

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Title Annotation:FORUM
Author:Michelfelder, Diane P.; Dakers, John R.; Christensen, Steen Hyldgaard; Fujiki, Atsushi; Ibarra, Ando
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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