The Function of Liberal Education in Engineering Education

As is the case in Japan, in the United States the humanities and social sciences (HSS) component of the engineering curriculum constitutes a significant portion of the total educational program. It can even legitimately be argued that the HSS component is becoming more central to engineering education than it has ever been. In this presentation I plan to provide an overview of the current state of, and future prospects for, the mission of the humanities and social sciences in engineering education within the context of the general aims of liberal learning and within the more specific task of the education of future professionals. The discussion will review the current ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) requirements for the HSS component, Rose-Hulmanís interpretation of these requirements, and some alternative models for meeting the requirements. I will then consider the new requirements found in ABET 2000, the new accreditation standards, and Rose-Hulmanís plan for integrating our offerings with those requirements. The presentation will conclude with some personal reflections on the role of humanities and social sciences in engineering education, with emphasis on the opportunities and challenges to be faced in the process of curriculum revision.

Rose-Hulman takes pride in being an institution which provides a liberal education in the sciences and engineering. While its primary aim is certainly to ensure that its graduates are technically prepared for their careers, it also recognizes that professionals must be problem solvers within the context of a larger societal whole and that their adult lives are not completely circumscribed by their professional roles. Future professionals, as do all students, need a broad background of knowledge and the capacity for independent thought as part of their course of study. With this recognition, the Rose-Hulman educational philosophy fits squarely within the Western educational tradition.

The role of liberal education in the West is an ancient one. The concept originated with the Greeks and signified for them that education necessary to become a free person, free in the sense of being able to participate fully and in an informed fashion in the business of the polity. In later centuries, this was seen to be the core function of a university education. Even as universities moved to specialized curricula on the German model, they therefore retained the ideal of a broad, general education as the basis of further study. Independent, reflective thought, on the basis of a strong foundation of inherited wisdom, was thought to enable both a successful career and a fulfilling professional life. An ideal course of study would include not only the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, but also courses in the arts, physical sciences, and mathematics.

During the last few decades a gradual shift away from this traditional perspective has occurred, with fewer and fewer schools requiring a broad range of subjects as a liberal education core, a major exception to the trend being some of the small, elite liberal arts colleges. Other colleges have moved more and more toward forms of specialized education, where increasing emphasis is placed on courses in a major and perhaps a minor. Some of the broad, general education has therefore been left behind, to the extent that when Stanford University reestablished a quite unregimented core it made national news. Even when the semblance of a core remains, most often the emphasis is on providing a multitude of choices. As a result, a variety of American commentators have called for the reestablishment of a unifying core of liberal learning. Interestingly, most of these come from the political right and thus put the call for liberal education in the context of the learning of traditional values or basics, thereby neglecting to some extent the freeing function of liberal education.

Lost, to a large extent, in the debate over the appropriate nature of higher education, has been a recognition that engineering education has actually been a remaining bastion of the ideals of liberal education. Due to the existing accreditation standards, all engineering students are required to take a number of courses in the humanities and social sciences. They, of course, also take many courses in mathematics and the physical sciences. When combined with their study of technology, which given its societal importance, ought probably to be a part of all curricula, engineering education can be seen a providing a truly liberating education. Lately, some engineering educators have started referring to engineering education as "THE liberal education for the 21st Century." Perhaps this is not as far off the mark as some academics in colleges of arts and sciences might believe.

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