Notes for KTH Conversation November 20, 2008
A: My name is Arne Kaijser, I am professor of History of technology at KTH and it is my privilege to introduce professor Rosalind Williams to you and to have a conversation with her on the topic “Humanistic dimensions of engineering”.
Rosalind Williams is the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology at MIT. She has degrees from degrees from Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and she has been at MIT since 1980. Professor Williams is a cultural historian of technology, and in her research she explores the emergence of a predominantly built world as the environment of human life, often using literature as a source of insight. She has written three books and many articles.
Furthermore she has served as Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs, and was the first humanist ever to be given this responsibility. She has also served as president of the Society for the History of Technology.
Rosalind Williams and I have been preparing our conversation today over the internet in the past three weeks, and we thus have a manuscript for our conversation, that we will stick to, primarily to be able to keep within the 30 minutes that we have been allotted.
I would like to start our conversation by simply asking you, Rosalind, why you chose to work at MIT. It is hardly a self evident career path for a full fledged humanist scholar like you to go to a technical university. So was there a special reason for your choice or was it pure coincidence?
R: The short answer is that I read an ad in Science magazine for a post-doctoral position in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology and Society. STS is an interdisciplinary academic department bringing together a variety of historians and social scientists working on the broader dimensions of science and engineering. I got the post-doc, which led me to part-time teaching at MIT, which eventually led to full-time teaching.
The longer answer is that I enjoy working in a technical environment. It feels like home to me, since I am from “a family of engineers.”
On both sides of my family the engineering profession has been a way of fulfilling what is often called The American Dream. On my mother’s side, her father (Warren K. Lewis) has been called “the father of chemical engineering.” He left the family farm in southern Delaware to go north to New England to get a better education and later to Germany for a doctorate in chemistry, all so he could better run the farm. But his education led him not back to the farm but to modern industry, especially the petroleum industry, and finally to the Manhattan Project in WW II. His two sons also became chemical engineers; my mother’s sister married a chemical industry entrepreneur; and my own mother became a math teacher in a community college (a 2-year college, which in the US provides an important route to upward mobility).
The theme of upward mobility is even stronger on my father’s side: both his parents left high school after the 8th grade, his father ran a grocery store on Long Island, his mother was from a German immigrant family—even after his father had some problems with the law she was determined to send her only son to college, to become an engineer, because the only kid in town who had a job during the Depression was a college-educated engineer, and so she did house cleaning to help pay the tuition at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. Engineering provided my father a route into the middle class, so that he worked for GE for 40 years and had a life of personal and economic stability that he could never have imagined as a kid. My brother (my only sibling) also became a chemist working in industry
So in my family the practical and moral influences appear to be all on the side of engineering and science. But I myself have never had any bent for or academic interest in those subjects. I have always loved history and literature and writing. So my interest in the humanistic dimensions of engineering is deeply personal. I am trying to find ways of talking to my own family.
A: You have indeed been speaking very ambitiously with your family, and you have even written a fascinating book about it. Your latest book, with the title “Retooling: A Historian confronts technological change”, has your grandfather on the cover, and in the book you tell a fascinating story of his unusual track from farm boy to professor at MIT. Your book is based on your personal experiences as a humanist active in a stronghold of technology and your book gives a very interesting insight into MIT and its special qualities, and I can warmly recommend it to all of you in the audience that admire MIT.
One of these qualities is, as you just said, that MIT is unusually welcoming to the humanities. I have experienced this personally when I was a visiting scholar at MIT in 2001, and I was truly surprised – and a bit jealous, I could add – to see the very positive attitude towards the humanities. Could you explain how it comes that MIT has this attitude?
R: In part this is actually a legacy of my own grandfather, who right after World War II chaired the committee that created a new school at MIT, the School of Humanities and Social Science (now Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences). The School was created in 1950 as a result of the so-called Lewis Report of 1949. The crucial chapter of that report is titled “A Broader Educational Mission.” Its argument was that after WWII no one could doubt that engineering had broad and decisive impact on all human endeavors, on all of society, so that the education of engineers needed to be commensurately broadened.
The Lewis Report is in essence a strategic plan for the humanities and social sciences at MIT. Almost 60 years later, the Lewis Report is still read and still quoted at the Institute.
One result of its recommendations is that MIT requires its undergraduates to take a humanities, arts, or social sciences class each term, for approximately 20-25% of the total undergraduate curriculum. In fact, at least a third of MIT undergraduates do not major in engineering but in other subjects such as economics, management, science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), and, yes, even humanities (the largest humanities major being Comparative Media Studies). A large majority of our graduates do not have engineering careers but use their undergraduate degree to pursue other professions such as law, medicine, and business. Our alumni/ae tell us that their broader education about the world has been of more value to them than most of their technical subjects.
A: And not only does MIT require its undergraduate students to take humanities and social sciences, it has also given some of its faculty within the humanities leading positions. As I informed the audience at the outset, you have been serving as Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs. Could you tell us a little about your experience as a humanist Dean at MIT?
R: In the mid-1990s I was asked in 1995 to serve as Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs. I served in this position for five years, until 2000. You will note that the title is Dean for Undergraduate Education *and* Student Affairs. I was supposed to oversee the academic program of MIT undergraduates *and* student life for both undergraduates and graduate students. Student life included housing and dining (as in many American colleges and universities, undergraduates and some graduates live in housing that the institution operates or oversees); athletics; admissions, financial aid; student activities; religious life, and much else.
The truth is that I spent much less time on academic matters than I hoped or expected. There are constant emergencies in student life—in my case, notably, the death of an 18-year-old from alcohol poisoning after a fraternity initiation event. When something like that happens, you pay attention to the human tragedy, not to the academic program. At least this tragedy had the effect of reminding us at MIT that student life is a critically important part of student learning.
A: In the program for this afternoon, the title for our conversation is the humanistic dimensions of engineering. What are in your opinion the humanistic dimensions of engineering? And where are they found?
R: One answer is that they are found in engineers themselves. There is a sort of myth of engineers, which they themselves love to amplify, that they are rational problem-solvers, using the tools of analysis (especially mathematical) to solve practical problems. This is true but hardly the whole truth. They remain human, which means that they have a range of consciousness and motivations; their very drive to solve practical problems comes from deeply felt values. In my grandfather’s case, what motivated him were religious (specifically Protestant) beliefs, his love for the family farm, and his desire to combine the two in developing the farm as an interracial community, in a way that would mitigate the terrible legacy of slavery in that part of the country. In my father’s case, a sympathy for the underdog, a desire to help other kids without opportunity to have educational opportunities, and a fascination with innovative designs (such as solar heating) even if there was no obvious market for them.
So, first, engineers are human; and, second, engineering practice always includes multiple human dimensions. Engineers always work in an interdisciplinary environment, always in collaboration, always confronting problems that spill across disciplinary boundaries.
And these problems are never defined, much less solved, by engineers alone. They always have to work with other people, to negotiate with capital, labor, and consumer groups, as well as with other social and professional groups that have stake in the outcome. Engineers have to work in teams with citizens who are not engineers; who do not share their respect for these modes of analysis; who have other ways of looking at the world, who bring other values and priorities to the table. It is a profession where dealing with those outside the professional ranks is at least as important as dealing with those in it.
A: Yes. I fully agree. The skilful dealing with non-engineers is often of crucial importance. This becomes particularly evident when engineers have failed in this respect. One of the most obvious examples is nuclear power. Many of the engineers in the nuclear industry – both in your country and mine – have had a much too narrow perspective and have failed to grasp the anxiety that the nuclear technology arises among many citizens.
The most spectacular technological failure in Sweden in the past decades is the attempt to make a railway tunnel in the south of Sweden through a mountain called Hallandsåsen. Here too, it is the inability to deal effectively with other professions such as geologists and environmental specialists, and to communicate with the general public that has contributed to the failure.
It is often the narrow-minded engineer that has become a symbol for the engineering profession in the general conception and in literature and film. There are a number of literary portraits of such square-minded engineers. For example sixty years ago the Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson characterized the engineers that were building a hydro power plant in the vicinity of where he lived with the following words: “the civil engineers were coming, happy and frightful men with slide-rules, giants in strength and thoughtlessness.”
Frans G. Bengtsson talked about engineers that built hydro power plants in order to tame nature. In your writing you have emphasized that this kind of taming of nature is not so prevailing any more. So what do engineers do instead?
R: Engineering is not today the “conquest of nature” in any simple sense. It is constructing and maintaining a human-built world in a world that is already primarily human-built. As someone has said, this is the “age of the anthropocene.” Every move we make, as humans, is in an environment that is already highly humanized, reworked, crowded, where defining the problem is itself a problem. For engineers, understanding how the human world works is as critical as understanding how things work.
A: What implications does all of this have for the education of engineers? How can MIT or KTH see to it that their pupils are well prepared for their future tasks? How can we give them necessary understanding of how the human-built world works? And how can we make them see beyond their own competence and train them to communicate with others professions and with the public at large?
r: MIT students are eager to solve the big problems of the world. Many of them have a strong social conscience and high social ambitions. Therefore they need an education that is, in the words of the Lewis Report, “preparation for life.” The big problems of life today involve social organization, economic patterns, human desires, human connections, human values.
Each educational institution is highly idiosyncratic . I would not presume to propose practices for KTH , but I would propose this golden rule, an MIT motto: “learn by doing.” if you want to educate an engineer who can work successfully in the complicated world of democracy, where they are not in charge, then they have to have an education that prepares them for life in such a world.
This implies, to start, that engineering students should interact regularly, around shared projects, with non-engineers. The development of the professional education has brought many benefits, but to the extent that it segregates engineering students in separate colleges or even institutions, it can make it harder for them to deal with the broader range of humanity in their professional practice, if they are used to dealing only with the like-minded in their professional education. Since engineering practice is deeply interdisciplinary, engineering education must involve regular projects across disciplines.
For example, in the sts program we try hard to have engineers and historians and social scientists all involved in teaching a class organized around a design project. Then the class is not just a series of lectures from different perspectives, but becomes an active integrated common exploration.
A: Well, in fact it seems as if part of these ideas have spilled over to KTH. I sat on a committee some ten years ago that was evaluating the KTH program on transport technology and the result was a rather radical change of the program. An important new element in the program was the introduction of what is called the CDIO-approach: conceive, design, implement and operate. And this CDIO-approach was directly imported from MIT. I guess that you are familiar with this concept.
The CDIO approach means among other things that the students on this program have to design and build a rather complicated device in their last year, and they do this in groups and really have to use all their combined knowledge and skills to succeed. I think this is a great way of learning by doing. However, the students do not interact with non-engineering students in these projects and as far as I know they don´t deal very much with the societal aspects of the artefacts that they create. This I think would be an important addition.
It strikes me that the very concept of CDIO is in fact rather narrow. In the real world it is very important to make a careful assessment of the likely societal and environmental consequences of a new technology before actually starting to implement it. So maybe one could instead talk of the CDAIO approach in which Assessment becomes a crucial step between design and implementation. There is a whole battery of approaches for making technology assessments that can be applied.
R: I can also mention another example of a new approach that i find promising. MIT is going to offer a new so-called “minor” program in energy: it will requires six classes in energy-related areas, one in social science and humanities; one in engineering; one in science, and three others chosen by the students from a list that includes, for example, a history of energy use or an ethnographic study of user preferences. MIT will also offer a similar interdisciplinary minor in “environment,” with the possibility that students could minor in both.
A: How interesting! There is a very similar activity going on at KTH. At present a planning group is preparing a new program in Energy and the Environment that will start in 2010. It also has the ambition to have a broad approach, but maybe not as broad as at MIT. Maybe our planning group could get inspiration from your new program.
In the case of energy and the environment it is so obvious that it is not sufficient with technology alone. A major Swedish consulting firm, Ångpanneföreningen, has just published a report saying that it is possible to cut the energy use in Sweden to half by introducing more energy efficient technologies that already exist. The challenge is thus not to develop new technologies but to implement policies and new forms of governance that can make this happen. And to develop a political will to make this happen and a spirit of “Yes we can”, to cite your new President elect.
There is another matter that I would like to discuss with you. Very much of the training at KTH, MIT and other technical universities is focusing on mathematics and the ability to make mathematical models of various phenomena. This is of course of importance for an engineer. But I think that many programs at KTH actually underestimate other crucial skills for an engineer, namely the ability to write and to speak. My experience as a teacher at KTH is that a fair number of students are very good in writing and speaking, but there is also a large fraction that is rather poor, some are even very poor. And KTH does not have a clear strategy for how to identify and help those students that need support in these fields. Rosalind, I know that you have previously worked at the so called Writing Program at MIT. Could you tell us a little about how this works?
R. The Writing Program, like the STS Program, is a regular academic department, with an interdisciplinary faculty (its current name is the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies). In the early 1970s one faculty member in this area organized what he called the “technical writing cooperative” at MIT. He responded to requests from engineering and science professors to help undergraduates improve their writing on lab reports and the like. When I first started teaching full-time at MIT, I was responsible for the Technical Writing Cooperative. It was a wonderful way for me to learn about the entire Institute.
But it had already become clear that this limited service role was entirely inadequate for providing “preparation for life” for our students. In the early 1980s the MIT faculty approved a substantial Writing Requirement for all undergraduates. It included an initial screening test and then two points of further testing during the four undergraduate years. In the 1990s, when I was serving as Dean, a more sustained and comprehensive Communications Requirement was approved by the faculty. It includes oral as well as written communications skills and requires that all students take one class each year that provides serious instruction and practice in writing and speaking. The requirement was reviewed last year and was judged to be extremely valuable by all sectors of the faculty.
A: We have talked about a number of areas where it seems that KTH might learn from MIT, but I would also like to mention one where MIT could learn from KTH, and that is training in foreign languages and cultures.
Many undergraduate students at KTH spend a semester or an academic year abroad at another university, often with economic support from the special EU-funded ERASMUS program. And KTH offers many courses in foreign languages to prepare the students before they leave. I think such a stay in a foreign country is an extremely valuable experience for a young student that not only gives them greater language skills but also a broader cultural competence and a less ethnocentric view of the world. I have the impression that rather few MIT-undergraduates get this experience from other cultures and languages during their studies. Is this correct, and if so, could MIT follow the Swedish or rather the European example in this respect?
R: MIT students often have multi-cultural experience from home: a third of the undergraduates come from families that speak a language other than English at home. However, we have not done enough to support language and cultural education in our academic program. We are working to expand such education for our students and can learn a lot from European universities in this respect.
A: Well, as true humanists we have relied on words for our conversation and have chosen not to use power point slides. But, if we had had a power point presentation, what would then have been the bullet points on your last slide, summing up your message about the humanistic dimensions of engineering?
I guess that my three bullet points would be:
• we live in a human-dominated world;
• education is preparation for life in this world; and
• the most effective method of education is by example: learning by doing.
A: Well thank you very much Rosalind, it has been very interesting and stimulating to have this conversation with you over the past weeks. And thank you all in the audience for your attention.