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Will Engineers Save The Academy?

My older son Matt is really into audio equipment these days. He started a small business in which he buys old stereo stuff (turntables, speakers, etc.) at thrift shops, refurbishes them, and sells them. This morning, I asked him what he’s thinking about for college (he’s 16). He said he’s really interested in the history of technology, and also thinks a lot about infrastructure, and the intersection between ideas and matter in the construction of systems. I thought, Good, if he sticks with this, he may be able to avoid the SJW madness destroying the humanities.

The thing is, Matt really loves history, and would make a fine humanities scholar. But I don’t think he would put up for one second with the intellectual corruption of the humanities at the college level. I don’t know that he has the math skills to be an actual engineer, but he’s young yet. The way that kid can take apart a piece of equipment, figure out what’s wrong with it, and put it back together, is amazing. He was telling me this morning how interesting he finds mechanical systems. Two years ago, when I took him to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he was able to have a startlingly high-level series of discussions with the scientists there about the mechanics of getting machines into space. It was a revelation to me; I had no idea how deeply this kid had read into this stuff.

What kind of place would a kid like this find at today’s university? The thought troubled me as we drove to one of his classes.

Happily, this e-mail just came in from a professor who asked me not to identify him by name or institution. He teaches writing and speaking, and most of his students are engineering majors:

I think that if anything at all will save the academy from itself, it may well be the engineers.

The students I teach are bright, motivated and engaged. As engineers, they know that a degree is a ticket to a good job, but they also view the work of civil engineers (roads, bridges, buildings, dams, etc.) as important, necessary, and even noble, though I doubt that they would put it quite so. In many of their faces I see determination to solve the besetting problems of civilization: to get clean water to people who need it, to protect homes and offices from disaster (natural or manmade), to find ways to make things that endure. I sit on a committee whose sole purpose is to find ways to attract more young people to the discipline. We ponder how we might make more civil engineers and by what mysterious process a young person’s mind is turned to the study of structures and the proper building of them. Like all departments, mine has politics, disagreements, and even the occasional scandal. But the thing I notice most is industriousness and a certain serious excitement: things must be built, and we are going to build them, better than ever before.

I moved to this department from my graduate work in English (wherein I was exposed to the same sort of suffocating groupthink spoken of by other academics on your blog) and it felt like moving into a different world. I want to point out three things that make a discipline like civil engineering a bastion of actual education in the modern era. First, there is faith, yes, faith, in this school. My jaw nearly dropped off when I attended my first formal CE function and heard an invocation at the beginning of the proceedings. It was, to be sure, a nondenominational appeal to a “higher power” but it was there. The students themselves seem to be more consistently and sincerely religious (I’ve had students go to daily mass with me) and our alumni will frequently attribute their success first to God. The school is still broadly secular and secularizing, but it often feels to me as if it still exists in the revival era of the 1950s.

Second, civil engineering has a code of ethics. This is necessary for a profession so involved in public works, but it’s a constant topic of debate and discussion for alumni and professors. For a civil engineer, an ethics violation can mean the loss of license and reputation, but it can also mean loss of life, so ethics are taken very seriously.

Third, these students are needed and they know it. The world needs people to build bridges and water treatment plants, and our alumni need well-trained dependable people in their companies. I spoke with our new secretary recently and she told me about being overwhelmed the first day because companies would call and tell her, “We need engineers, as many as you have. Who’s graduating this semester?” We can’t make engineers fast enough.

You might well say that there’s a great gap between this utilitarian production of engineers for the industrial complex and a classical liberal education, but I think that purpose is the great missing piece in the liberal academy.[Emphasis mine — RD] You can make jokes about flipping hamburgers all you want, if language is just about power dynamic, then how can it build anything and who can it serve? Civil engineers serve, their code of ethics claims, “the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” Could any humanities department claim anywhere near so concrete and so comprehensible a mandate?

Dorothy Sayers has an essay about modern poetry being poetry of search while older poetry is poetry of statement. Anyone who reads Dante knows that the Commedia is as real and solid as the cathedral at Chartres (your book is in my stack, but I’m reading Trollope right now). One thing that the empty invective of the last several weeks at Yale and Mizzou seems to show is how language now seems to amount to people wandering around through a cornfield at night with torches in their hands, burning everything they run up against in the hope of finding a little bit of light (and, one suspects, for something to do other than wander around). I love my engineering students because for them, the world is a cornfield, they have the tractors, and it’s time to go to work.

Writing and reading should be as real as tractors. It was once, and it can be again, God willing. I want to return to the teaching of literature, but I confess that I don’t yet know how to turn the humanities away from the making torch-lighters and toward making people who put torches out so they can point out the stars.

I’ve rambled a bit on this, but I want you to know that not all of the American academy is dissolving into chaos. Over here in engineering, we don’t have time to waste on flame wars and protests. There’s too much work to do.

Boy, does that make me feel hopeful.

UPDATE: Reader Mohammad, writing from Iran, says:

Some of the engineering work needs high mathematical ability. However most don’t, even if in the formal training of engineers they emphasize math.

However, I don’t share your hope and enthusiasm for engineers. They have some real handicaps. My cousin who was trained as an engineer first, then moved to humanities (before getting completely disillusioned with academia) once sent me the following list of engineers’ problems. Ignore the sometimes exaggerated and overly generalizing style, and you get some really good insight into engineering mind:

•Engineers try to control, try to optimize, and here lays the problem.

•Anywhere outside machines and concrete, they end up breaking things up: breaking nature, and breaking harmony, because they force everything to the soulless mechanics.

•Outside of machines, intelligence is not mechanical. Mechanicallity leads to social, psychological, and spiritual stupidity. Looking for certainty leads to having a narrow, pitiful, and rigid view of life. You end up with an illusion of control and being deterministic with a constipated personality.

•Incapable of dealing with uncertainty and gray areas and doubt, they become destroyer of culture and spirituality. Culture is much bigger than machine and it has a whole degree of uncertainty.

•They also become destroyer of economy (by encouraging planned economy/ command and control systems), and destroyer of good politics, which involves a lot of negotiation and compromise.

•Engineers rarely have good aesthetics: look at the modern buildings. They are not refined and have a crude taste.

•You end up crazy; westerners call them compulsive obsessive disorder (read about it). In your mind once you optimally save every penny, you are living a life. You just don’t get it when explained to you: It is unhealthy idiotic form of self-indulgence to give an illusion of control. It is beyond selfish; it is narcissistic (mental issue).

•Engineers are burdens for social life. They kill good conversations and create dull conversations for their fear of the natural and uncontrolled world. You maybe ‘good’ people, but unless you have realized and acknowledged your weaknesses you are not a good company.

•In addition, another way engineers and engineering students are destructive is their arrogance. In fact, they are famous for being annoyingly arrogant. Somehow, after taking their first university courses (which are useless in real life), they think they have the full knowledge of everything or that they can attain knowledge by themselves. On top of being rationalists, they are reductionists: they reduce every issue to some basic organized naïve ‘facts’. This is why they are naïve on social issues.

•Another side effect of their arrogance is ignoring the order and hierarchy of things. They are own master and teacher on every issue. They have their own fatwa, regardless of how little they know. At the same time, most of them are the least literate people in the world.

•In the old times the spiritual battle was between self-indulgence and control. In the modern times the primary battle is against metamorphosis. There are too many self-stabbing self-alienated men who have lost their senses and lose both material comfort as well as spiritual peace.

•Engineering is another one of enemies of culture. Other ones are Wahhabis, Taliban’s, political ideologies, etc.

•Engineers must realize their social handicaps. You must learn to free yourself from your profession and your formal education; you are a human and not a corporate slave. This is true about many professions. Maybe by following a guided spiritual path, maybe by reading classical literature, maybe by balancing their life, maybe by finding an artistic outlet.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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