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Engineering—or Social Engineering?

A professor comments on disquieting trends in his field.

By Indrek S. Wichman

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December 20, 2010

Since the 1980s, Americans have been hearing about the problems of politicization and “dumbing down” of college courses along with an infusion of lightweight and even salacious topics in the humanities and social sciences. The signs were evident as long ago as the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate at Stony Brook University. Professors would often devote entire lectures to topics such as legalization of marijuana, the sexual revolution, and other subjects having little or no connection with classical learning.

My fellow engineering majors and I considered such courses to be easy, involving little study or intellectual exertion. When humanities courses turned out to be challenging and interesting (e.g., philosophy, history, classical music) they were—at least for me—a delight. Those courses are the ones I remember best.

But engineering and the hard sciences like physics and chemistry, are perceived to be different. Admission into and progress through these programs is based on three necessary qualities: a curiosity about the natural world, a generous portion of innate intelligence, and a solid work ethic. (Note that those qualities reflect the qualities of the learner, not the professor, who merely points these students in the right direction.)

Unfortunately, it is no longer true that student interest, innate ability and dedication (work ethic) are necessarily the principal variables in the field of engineering. Driven primarily by university administrators, engineering has been beset by the social engineering agenda.

Since I first became a professor at Michigan State University in 1986, administrators have consistently sought to enroll and graduate more women and minorities in engineering. Apparently, they feel that engineering is unjustly dominated by  European-American males and that society would be improved by adding more female and minority engineering students.

It is likely that many administrators behind this push are former student activists who have risen to power in the academic world. They’re the people Roger Kimball calls “tenured radicals.” In my personal experience, few university administrators have a substantial background in engineering, but these same administrators are evidently certain that they can improve the field through their enlightened policies.

By the mid-1980s engineering and science curricula began their sea-change. Programs were “softened” in order to admit minorities and women. “Outreach” efforts were begun. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs were funded to entice women, inner-city blacks and other minorities into disciplines like engineering and physics. Grant applications (to the National Science Foundation, for example) that once dealt only with engineering now had to address social concerns, outreach to minorities and women, and other issues with which engineers were wholly unfamiliar. Current NSF proposals require a minimum of 2 pages out of 15 on the integration of education, outreach, and enhancement of diversity under subheadings such as “Focused Diversity,” “Underprivileged Student Participation,” and “Participation of Women and Minorities.” That leaves at most 13 pages for the scientific content.

These legislative initiatives, which were implemented in the 1990s by Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland along with other socially-minded advocates of science as social engineering, have seen to it that NSF proposals are altogether different than in the past. “Inadequate social content” now forms a valid criterion for rejecting an otherwise outstanding engineering proposal.

At the same time, “social relevance” also became an issue in engineering courses. Programs such as “environmental science” were introduced and became staples in engineering colleges across the U.S., usually in departments of civil engineering although sometimes also in mechanical or aerospace engineering (where it takes the form of an airborne pollution or particulate analysis course). Bioengineering has become a favorite and various other “soft” courses have been introduced, much to the detriment of the classical “hard” set of electives that were the norm from the 1940s to the 1990s.

Some engineering colleges developed “Engineering Arts” programs to soften the engineering curriculum by including business courses, arts (design) courses and other friendlier topics. The goal here, as before, was to include more “minorities” in order to make “the numbers” look better.

This was based on the common belief among administrators that a graduating engineering class should racially, ethnically and sexually “look like” America at large. If America is 51 percent female and your engineering college has only 15 percent females, the reasoning went, systematic discrimination must explain the difference. Unaccounted for were differences in student interest and preparation, which are not randomly distributed across the population.

Administrators and other educational specialists (who write many of the articles that appear in journals such as the American Society of Engineering Education as opposed to journals about engineering per se, Physics of Fluids, for example) say that what is needed for success in engineering are “3-D spatial visualization skills.” According to educational experts, those quantitative skills can be “developed” with a “proper education,” while maintaining an emotive focus on “raising self-esteem.”

In other words, we can educate almost anyone to become an engineer with the right approach, and through the “outreach” strategies noted above, rectify the “imbalance” in our field.

Engineering, however, is much more than pencil and paper operations, math skills, the ability to visualize and create 3-D CAD/CAM drawings, and self-esteem. It is a way of being in which an important part is attraction to machinery, devices, tools (i.e., things) and their operation. In contrast to the beliefs of many famously “hands-off” administrators, these qualities of the engineer constitute a way of life, and aren’t simply abstract concepts that can be transplanted into dormant minds.

My colleagues and I have no objection whatsoever to minorities or females in engineering. What we are concerned about as a matter of principle is the manner by which their numbers are artificially inflated.

If minorities and women are interested, and have the requisite aptitude for hard-core engineering, they will find their way: ours is a color-blind discipline where no one I have ever met was forced out because of his appearance. Mechanical, chemical, aerospace, civil, materials and electrical engineering, yes: social engineering, no.

 


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