One of the most interesting books I’ve ever read is called The Civilized Engineer, by Samuel C. Florman. I thought it was fascinating. It was written over three decades ago, but to me, it’s just as applicable today as it was when it was first published.
I can’t claim to remember the entire book, but here it is in a nutshell. As newer technologies develop, colleges continually have to add new courses to their required engineering curriculum. For example, drafting was long ago replaced with computer aided design (CAD). I was in the long-ago class and found drafting to be very important for many reasons, including developing the ability to visualize 3-dimensional bodies based on 2-dimensional paper-space. When one class is added, another has to be dropped. In this example, the substitution is mostly a positive thing. But carry it further, and pretty soon you have to replace non-engineering classes with new engineering classes. And the stricken non-engineering classes tend to be from the humanities. Add a class on socio-economic assessments, lose a class in classical literature. I just looked at the civil engineering requirements for one well-known college, and they have no humanity courses required that I could see. There are slots for three electives of the student’s choice.
Now, does this approach make a well-rounded person at the end of four years? I won’t answer that. Does it make a well-educated engineer? Probably. Who would I rather talk to in a social gathering? A person who took all engineering classes, or somebody with a more well-rounded education? Again, I won’t answer that.
Several years ago, my cousin was in the senior year of his engineering program. He could take an elective. He asked me what it should be, probably hoping that I’d suggest an exotic or sexy engineering class. I told him to take a technical writing class. He seemed very disappointed in my response. I have no idea if he took that class, but I truly hope that he did. Just like reading, writing is fundamental.
Obviously, the title of the book, The Civilized Engineer, is a play on words. But still, isn’t there a good reason to have well-rounded people graduating from engineering programs?