December 6, 2010

An Engineering Culture

There was an article in the New York Times recently that summarized the comments made by several industry leaders here in the US and in Great Britain recently about these countries turn away from manufacturing. An interesting piece in the Times' article is the emphasis on an "engineering culture" and how this lack affects the economy and society.  James Dyson's recent report to the British government, Ingenious Britain, highlights the need for government to sponsor and fund large engineering projects both to stimulate excitement in engineering and technology and create the jobs that turn interest into careers.  The Times' article states:
"For decades, France has nurtured big engineering endeavors, like nuclear power and high-speed trains. The graduates of France’s leading engineering schools are among the elite of French society."
Other calls for more of an engineering culture have been put forward on this side of the Atlantic by Andy Grove of Intel (covered in a previous post) and Jeffery Immelt of GE who said candidly:
"Many bought into the idea that America could go from a technology-based, export-oriented powerhouse to a services-led, consumption base economy – and somehow still expect to prosper. That idea was flat wrong. And what did we get in the bargain? We’ve seen a great vanishing of wealth. Our competitive edge has slipped away, and this has hit the middle class hard." 
Unspoken in these reports is the criticism that the engineering profession--especially those that profess to be engineering educators--was somehow complicit in letting this happen.  I believe this to be true.  As long as we focus on content, as long as we discuss equations, principles, and concepts we are safe.  Safe from straying into the messy and subjective realms of economics and politics and religion.  Safe from those that profess belief that is not backed up by fact or reason.  This course of non-involvement is, in some ways, prudent.  The rise of demagoguery and concurrent demise of reasoned discourse is unsettling to many engineers.  The decision to stay well away from the polemics of politics is a safe course and for many faculty part of an unstated code of ethics.

But yet...  The engineering profession does have its own set of beliefs as the above public statements by engineering leaders indicates.  While these beliefs are by no means monolithic across the profession they do exist.  Outsiders may wonder about our unwillingness to stand up and fight for these beliefs, or to pass them on to our students.  These actions become understandable when one realizes that the engineering profession's unwillingness to articulate, inculcate, and defend our beliefs are, in fact, part of the beliefs of our discipline. 

I don't really understand the origins of this attitude, but it may arise from the simple fact that over time we become what we do.  Most engineers' work is driven by data and numbers; we learn to dismiss statements not backed up by data.  We are reinforced in this behavior by the difficulty of what we do; embracing a data-driven life, like Thomas Merton's asceticism, requires year of discipline to pay off.  But there are things in the world that cannot yet be quantified, and perhaps never can be.  Does our focus on data make us less able to accept, embrace, defend, or articulate such ephemeral things as values?  I am reminded of James Branch Cabell's character Jurgen who upon seeing a vision of Helen of Troy understood that his life experiences had made him incapable of expressing passion:
"At the bottom of my heart, I no longer desire perfection.  For we who are taxpayers as well as immortal souls must live by politic evasions and formulae and catchwords that fret away our lives as moths waste a garment;  we fall insensibly to common-sense as to a drug; and it dulls and kills whatever in us is rebellious and fine and unreasonable; as so you will find no man of my years with whom living is not a mechanism which gnaws away time unprompted.  For within this hour I have become again a creature of use and wont; I am the lackey of prudence and half-measure; and I have put my dreams upon an allowance."
Engineers need to be careful not to let our values go unremarked or under-appreciated.  We need to more explicitly teach our beliefs and our way of looking at life.  If there was ever a time in history to stand up for faith in reason, for using data to make decisions, for balancing human need with the hard facts of the universe that time is now.

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