Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/September 1905/General Education for Engineers

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By Professor CHAS. D. MARX,


THERE has been of late years a large increase in the number of students of engineering in our colleges and universities. An investigation made by Professor Raymond, of the Iowa State University, shows that the attendance in arts and science courses has increased in four years 15 per cent., in engineering courses 102 per cent. This tendency on the part of the young men to take up the study of the more practical lines of work in preference to the so-called more liberalizing studies is viewed with grave concern by some. 'Are we to be merely a nation of shopkeepers and engineers?' has been asked from this platform. While not sharing the fear implied in this question, I must admit that because of the tendency of the young men of the country to take up engineering studies, the proper training of the engineer is a matter of vital importance to the commonwealth. The extent to which engineering enters into some of the most vexing problems of our national and municipal life is perhaps fully realized only by men who have an engineering training. The correct solution of these problems can in many cases be given only by engineers; but these must be men trained on broad lines. The charge is brought not infrequently that the professional structure which we rear on the foundation laid in our public schools is a narrow one, lacking in windows from which to gain the necessary outlook for surveying even one's own field, let alone that of one's neighbor. The charge is well founded, but may with equal justice be brought against students in other lines of work.

The graduate from a high school who takes up engineering studies should be required to broaden his intellectual horizon before beginning his professional work. The difficulty of bringing this about is great, and the introduction of the elective system has certainly not helped matters. The tendency toward early specialization is constantly increasing, and one-sided narrow linguists, historians and scientists are as much a menace to the commonwealth as one-sided engineers. For it must be borne in mind that the work which the engineer is called upon to do is in the world, implies contact with men and things and is in its nature broadening. It is cultural in the best sense of the word, and must, therefore, react on him. This does not hold true to the same extent for the other lines of work mentioned. In a democracy it is of the highest importance that every man realize that the noble duties of citizenship devolve upon him, that he has responsibilities other than those of merely providing the daily bread for himself and his. We have a community of interests only as long as we have common points of contact; we have the latter only as we have a broad common subsidiary training.

Admitting that the high school course of the embryo engineer should be rounded out with additional work in language, science, history and economics, the question arises where shall this knowledge be acquired?

For the training of our engineers we have, broadly speaking, two types of schools in this country—technical schools pure and simple, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and others, and engineering departments either in our colleges of engineering and mechanic arts, or in our universities. I group the last two named, because in both of them some of the general culture studies mentioned as necessary for the broadening of the engineer's training are presented merely from the standpoint of the specialist.

In the schools of the first type there is a recognition of the fact that the general culture courses must be adapted to the needs of the technical student. There is a frank acknowledgment that these broadening studies may be made to serve a useful purpose, even when they are not an end to themselves, and that this does not detract from their value. The fact is recognized by teachers of these subjects in purely technical schools, that because the student is to be a specialist in some line of engineering, he can not at the same time be a specialist in ancient and modern languages, in history, economics and the pure sciences. From the engineer's standpoint, as regards the acquirement of this supplementary general training, there is much to be said in favor of the autonomy of technical schools. This, too, is the view at which the German Society of Engineers has arrived. As in this country, there has been a very large increase in the number of students in the technical courses in Germany. So large has this increase been that for a time at least foreign students in mechanical engineering were barred at Berlin. Existing institutions are still so crowded that the establishment of new technical schools is contemplated. The suggestion was made, that in those places where universities existed and technical schools were needed, the latter might well be incorporated in the university. At a meeting held in Munich in September, 1904, which was attended by representative teachers from the technical schools, the universities, the preparatory schools and by engineers of standing in practise, the following resolution was submitted: "It is not desirable in place of establishing new technical high schools, to add technical faculties to existing universities, because both institutions differ in their character and method of instruction." Those assembled, after laying stress on the fact that members of the engineering profession should be judged by the same educational standards as other educated professional men, adopted the above resolution in substance, but, in deference to the university men, the last clause of the resolution was not emphasized; I think, though, that the correctness of the statement is generally admitted.

In spite of these conclusions we find in this country at least a tendency in the opposite direction. In our strongest state universities and in others built on private foundations, we find either engineering departments or colleges. The union of Harvard University and the Institute of Technology is under consideration. Something can, therefore, undoubtedly be said in favor of this arrangement. Of course, the presence of the 'sublimated tinker' in the university has been deprecated, but not by the leaders of educational thought in America.

It is recognized that the presence of a body of hard working, straight thinking young men in a university, even if they intend to make some practical use of their education, is a good antidote for intellectual snobbishness. On the other hand, it must be conceded that the technical student, too, is benefited by being thrown in contact with men in other lines of work, many of which have no direct practical application. Students become acquainted with one another, learn to appreciate one another's point of view, and mutual respect and goodwill result.

While fully recognizing the benefits which come in a general way to the engineering student from this environment, it must, nevertheless, be asserted that, as our universities in their development follow in the wake of the German universities, they too, like them, become unfitted for doing the general culture work, not only for engineering students, but for all students. The tendency toward specialization in subjects and subdivisions of subjects leads to the offering of many undoubtedly valuable courses. But they are courses for the specialist, fitted for his needs, and capable of being understood by but few. The giving of general culture courses is discouraged; and there is some justification, as long as the aim of many so-called students is merely to get hours enough to graduate. The summing up of the results in any given line of work and its presentation, so that the non-specialist may get a general view of the field, are dangerous, because of the 'little learning' thus imparted, which, of course, is 'a dangerous thing.'

Even in poetry: "The learned guardians of these treasures insist that they can not be appreciated unless there has been much preliminary wrestling with a 'critical apparatus' and much delving among 'original sources.'"

If the engineering student is to acquire that general cultural training the lack of which is often made a reproach to him, and if the technical school is to find its full development in the university and not as a separate institution, then the university must make provision for this much needed instruction, unless it can be provided for all students elsewhere. It will and should lead to the giving of courses differing in character and differing in method of presentation from those now offered to the specialist, but they may be none the less both useful and inspiring.

It is necessary for the specialist to know the methods of study of his specialty; it is necessary for the general student to know the results of such study. Therefore, to be both useful and inspiring, such courses must be given by men who are past masters in their line of work.

This will be held by many to be a plea in favor of superficiality, and if getting a general view of another line of work is superficiality, why it is a superficiality of which many specialists might well be guilty. The objectors to this kind of general knowledge lose sight of the fact that no one who is thoroughly grounded in his own line of work is likely to be damaged intellectually by such general information. Conscious of the limitations of his knowledge in his own field after years of study, he is not likely to assume that he has mastered another field as the result of a general lecture course in that subject. The chances are, however, that the effect will be to broaden his views, to enlarge his sympathetic understanding of the work of the specialist and to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and consideration for one another's line of work. In order to give such courses there must be an increase in the teaching force in the various lines of work in our universities. Certainly the work of the specialist, upon which progress in any given field depends, must not be stinted for the sake of the seeker after general knowledge. This is one reason why consolidation of the technical school with the university, if the tendency toward specialization in the latter continues, can not bring about economy in instruction. Justification for such consolidation must be sought elsewhere, as shown above. Not only engineering students, but all students pursuing special studies in a university need general courses, and though it may not be possible for us to become a nation of engineers, it is eminently desirable that all educated persons should have at least some general knowledge of engineering. Surely he can not be held to be truly educated who is ignorant of the conditions which surround him, of the methods by which his daily intellectual and physical needs are met. This training is not for the purpose of making more half-baked experts, prepared to pass snap judgments on matters beyond their ken, but for the purpose of teaching them the importance of solving the problems of manufacture, distribution and transportation correctly. These problems translated stand for the providing of material and mental food for the masses, the betterment of their conditions of living, for healthy homes, for the pure air, the pure earth, the pure water of the sanitarian, for the intellectual growth which is made possible by freeing man from soul-and mind-killing drudgery. Public service is what engineerng stands for, and perhaps the cultural effect of such work will be admitted. The work is as altruistic as that of the physician, as that of the minister. For the spirit of acquisition, for corporate greed the profession of engineering is not responsible. There has been no fear expressed of our becoming a nation of physicians or even of lawyers. The danger to the commonwealth from a superabundance of lawyers may be greater than that from a superabundance of engineers. There need be no danger from either if the lawyers and engineers are men of the right stamp.

Moral integrity does not necessarily go with cultural training so called. Men with the broadest of cultural training may be found in the pay of corporations striving for illegal franchises. Political bosses with no cultural training may be found abetting them. Engineers may probably be called upon to carry out the work. The danger to the community lies not in the character of the work, but in the character of the man; and a nation is in no danger even if it be largely a nation of engineers, as long as these men are men of character. Such men our engineering schools are trying to train and send out into the world. Some of them as yet may be lacking in general training, but no one feels this shortcoming more keenly than these very men. If others were as conscious of their own shortcomings, of their woful lack of knowledge of the engineering of to-day, it would be well indeed. That these engineers, sent out by our schools, are making their presence felt in the world can not be gainsaid; that they have contributed to the mental and moral uplifting of this nation, no one who thinks deeply will deny.