Sunday, April 12, 2015

Engineering's War on the Liberal Arts

I recently finished In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria and came to an important conclusion.  As a profession, engineering still produces people more comfortable with narrow knowledge and expertise at the expense of strong basics.  We have given the merits of integrating mathematics, science, and the humanities to produce a more complete engineer much lip service, but we are still producing the most narrow of employees and citizens.

Regardless of what you are designing, I can guarantee you that the design process is as much about psychology and sociology as it is technology.  I would even argue that the more you can integrate a broader general education into the design, the greater the critical thinking and creativity that supports the design process.  This knowledge and exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross-fertilization.  It is especially critical in a world dominated by multi-disciplinary problems in search of multi-disciplinary solutions.

From the book:

"When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained, "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough - that it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing."

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want.  America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with humans."

Part of our war and a lack of respect for the humanities and a broader educational base starts with our collective discounting of the skills embedded in knowing how to learn throughout a career and life, critical thinking skills that cross discipline boundaries, and even how to write.  One of the most tech firms in the world is Amazon.  But read what they arfe thinking in terms of communication skills.

From the book:

"No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write.  Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages, and begins senior-management meetings with a period of quiet time, sometimes as long as 30 minutes, while everyone reads the narratives to themselves and makes notes on them.  In a interview with Fortune's Adam Lashinsky, Bezos said: "Full sentences are harder to write.  They have verbs.  The paragraphs have topic sentences.  There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."

The demand for engineers with top-shelf creative and social skills with only grow exponentially this century.  Any problem that currently needs solving will require skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM or engineering curriculum.

Let's make peace with the humanities and the power of a liberal arts education and think more in terms of what skills will actually be valued and in demand this century.  Engineers need the power embedded in a liberal arts education that cultivates creativity, critical thinking, and innovation.

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