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One Thousand Answers: Why Liberal Arts Is Essential to Engineering

In his 2005 book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman painted a picture of the 21st century economy that made many in the U.S. uncomfortable. He argued that the forces of technology, globalization and rapid information flow would greatly diminish the value of work skills and education that many of us rely on for our livelihoods.

After publishing the book and going on a speaking tour, he frequently was asked by anxious parents in the audience, “Then, what type of education do you recommend for my son or daughter?” The question was so prevalent that Friedman added a new chapter to the book in 2007, and his answer may be surprising to many. Despite the advances in technology and engineering threatening to rewrite the economic playbook for the globe, Friedman argues that a liberal arts education would provide the best preparation to thrive in the economy to come.

Friedman notes that even educators in India and China have “concerns that if math and science are not leavened by art, literature, music and the humanities, their countries will be at a competitive disadvantage as they try to get to the next level of global competition.” The right-brain thinking skills and an understanding of people and societies fostered by a liberal arts education amplify students’ creativity, curiosity and adaptability, which are the essential ingredients of innovation.

Nationwide, our engineering education system has not done well in advancing the idea that it will take much more than technological skills to solve our world’s most difficult problems. In 1990, I enrolled in an education course run by well-known engineering educational specialist Dr. Jim Stice at the University of Texas at Austin. One of my classmates took on a project to conduct a Myers-Briggs-like typological assessment of the entire graduate student body in the chemical engineering program. Of the 70-plus respondents, 95 percent self-identified to be grouped in one half of the inventory matrix.

From the literature, students who map into these quadrants are likely to do well in science and logic-based disciplines, but are less concerned with people and interpersonal aspects.” That’s more than 95 percent of us!

We think that the poor-people-skills stereotype of engineers is forged on our profession by the outside, but the reality is that it is likely manifested from our own internal cognitive processes that have been rewarded and sustained by our nation’s humanities-void engineering educational system.

In his 2008 report “Engineering for a Changing World,” Dr. James Duderstadt, CalTech alumnus and former president of the University of Michigan, argued that engineering programs should place less emphasis on technical training while “stressing the far greater long-term value to the student and our society of a truly liberal education.”

In the vast majority of engineering programs throughout the country, the benefits of a broad liberal arts education are missed entirely. And if Friedman and Duderstadt are correct, then the engineers emerging from those programs start their careers with a competitive disadvantage.

As I explain to students at St. Thomas, a liberal arts education doesn’t just make you a better cocktail party conversationalist. The skills developed in a liberal education are actually quite pragmatic. I often show students the mouse from my computer and ask, “How many designs of this device have you seen?” Invariably, the students shake their heads and say “lots” or “hundreds.” And to that I respond, “And we haven’t even opened it up to look at the inside.” I continue, “So, there are a thousand answers to this design problem,” and then I ask, “What type of experience do you think would prepare you to thrive in an environment where there are 1,000 possible answers to every question: your math class or your philosophy class?”

Being a member of an engineering team, navigating the multitude of decisions that lead to a new design or a problem solved requires far more reliance on the skills developed in a liberal arts education than on a student’s extensive technical training. The engineering educational community has known this for some time but, with the exception of a sliver minority of programs across the country, marginalization of the liberal arts in engineering persists.

In a study published in one of the first Engineering Education journals in 1916 (yes, more than 100 years ago), a survey of nearly 7,000 working engineers were asked to attribute a percentage ranking to various skills and traits necessary to succeed as an engineer. Technical skills and scientific knowledge were shown to account for only 25 percent. Character, good judgment and an understanding of people dominated the responses.

Yes, even in engineering, it is all about people. We have known this for a very long time. And a liberal arts education is a great pathway to address that reality and, in stride, to thrive in this 21st century economy.