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Harvard and Engineering Education OPEN ACCESS

Engineers Used to Suffer from the Elite’s Anti-Technology Bias. No Longer.

[+] Author Notes

Samuel C. Florman, a civil engineer, is chairman of Kreisler Borg Florman General Construction Co. He is the author of The Existential Pleasures of Engineering and six other books. In 1995 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Mechanical Engineering 138(01), 42-45 (Jan 01, 2016) (4 pages) Paper No: ME-16-JAN3; doi: 10.1115/1.2016-Jan-3

Abstract

This article talks about a positive shift in engineering education and applied sciences in global educational institutions such as Harvard. In the past, students at universities such as Harvard suffered due to lack of emphasis on engineering education; however, this has changed now with funding from outside. The roots of engineering professionalization are to be found in France, where as early as 1675, the government organized a corps of military engineers to oversee construction of fortresses and harbors. In 1985, the academic year preceding Prince Charles’s condescending remarks, Harvard awarded only 38 undergraduate degrees in engineering science, plus six master’s degrees and eight doctorates. The boost in the funding for engineering programs brings hope for the students in Harvard at the least.

Article

Engineers used to suffer from the elite’s anti-technology bias. No longer.

I was astonished to learn recently that a billionaire hedge fund manager, John A. Paulson, is giving $400 million to Harvard in support of the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Ordinarily one is not surprised to find Harvard linked to big money, even this amount, the largest gift in the history of the institution. But the joining together of Harvard and engineering education—well, to this engineer the announcement was scarcely credible.

Only twenty-nine years ago—September 4, 1986—a crowd of Harvard dignitaries initiated a celebration of the university’s 350th anniversary with cheers for a speech condemning the spread of the engineering enterprise. Prince Charles of Great Britain, “resplendent in a silk academic gown heavily embroidered with gold,” according to The New York Times, “warned the audience of 16,000 people that the Western world was in danger of letting technology triumph over man.” In the part of the speech that was most widely quoted, he pronounced that “We might have forgotten that when all is said and done a good man, as the Greeks would say, is a nobler work than a good technologist.”

This widely disseminated—and seemingly gratuitous—critique of engineering education was warmly received at Harvard but was not regarded kindly by some of the folks at Harvard’s Cambridge neighbor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In those days I was writing a column for Technology Review, published at M.I.T., and the perceived putdown was a natural topic for my next essay, scheduled for January 1987. I wrote what I thought was a rather light-hearted riposte supported by a few pertinent historical facts. But then the editors added a touch of sparkle by making the title of my piece “A Good Technologist is a Noble Work,” and drafting a sub-title that said “An anti-technology bias seems to have tainted Harvard’s 350th celebration.” Then, for emphasis, they added an illustration: the drawing of a nattily dressed man standing atop a classical stone column that is crumbling. The gentleman smilingly holds a Harvard shield, but the traditional VERITAS inscription has been replaced by the word VANITAS.

No lasting harm seemed to be done by this touch of journalistic jousting, yet the challenge remained for all of us to ponder. What right had the aristocrats of the Ivy League to disparage, indeed belittle and insult, engineering, one of the great professions of Western civilization? Well, come to think of it, this was more or less in tune with the aristocrats of American society who, although their fortunes were mostly founded in technological prowess—notably steel, oil, and the railroads—had developed a high society modeled on that of the British aristocracy. Engineers, as a class, were low on the social ladder, not likely to have attended Harvard. Herbert Hoover, a successful mining engineer before becoming president, related the tale of meeting a lady on a Transatlantic cruise, telling her he was an engineer only to have her reply “Oh dear, but I thought you were a gentleman.”

The roots of engineering professionalization are to be found in France where as early as 1675 the government organized a corps of military engineers to oversee construction of fortresses and harbors.

It seems a strange quirk of history that although Britain sparked the Industrial Revolution with the steam engine and iron-working, one would have to give credit not to the nation’s leaders but rather to the British working classes—individual geniuses of invention, and also talented families who created and managed efficient factories. In the upper classes elder sons inherited titles and oversaw their family estates. Many younger sons sought careers in the church or in the army. Classical education remained dominant. There was no government support of technical education until 1889 when Parliament authorized grants to city universities for the purpose of technological training. Cambridge and Oxford followed reluctantly, with Cambridge introducing a minor program in “mechanical science” in 1890 and Oxford a chair of “engineering science” in 1909.

This statue, in the courtyard of the school, commemorates the cadets of L’Ecole Polytechnique who rushed to the defence of Paris against the foreign armies in 1814. A copy was installed in West Point as a symbol of brotherhood between the two nations and schools.

Grahic Jump LocationThis statue, in the courtyard of the school, commemorates the cadets of L’Ecole Polytechnique who rushed to the defence of Paris against the foreign armies in 1814. A copy was installed in West Point as a symbol of brotherhood between the two nations and schools.

The roots of engineering professionalization are to be found in France where as early as 1675 the government organized a corps of military engineers to oversee construction of fortresses and harbors. This was followed in 1716 by a civilian engineering corps in charge of bridges, roads, and canals. Formal education for the profession can be dated to 1747 with establishment of the Ecole des Ponts et Chausses, followed in 1794 by the legendary Ecole Polytechnique. Converted to a military academy by Napoleon in 1804, the Polytechnique has played a unique, one must say historic, role. In France it became a selective and prestigious source of leadership, political and economic as well as scientific and technological. And throughout the 19th and 20th centuries it was a beacon for emulation by most of the developed and developing nations.

In the United States early colonial leaders, prominently Jefferson, were impressed by the French example, and the Military Academy founded at West Point in 1802, became the major source of American engineers for several decades. There followed Rensselaer Polytechic Institute and a few other private efforts. MIT, supported by the Massachusetts legislature, was formally established in 1861. And then came the great breakthrough of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts passed by Congress in 1862. This legislation, awarding federal aid to the states for founding colleges of agriculture and mechanic arts, saw the number of schools teaching engineering grow to eighty-five by 1880.

Harvard, the first college in the American colonies, was founded in 1636. John Harvard, the College’s benefactor and namesake, was a clergyman who had received his M.A. from Cambridge University. Classical education prevailed through the colonial days and into development of the new nation. “Applied science” was introduced at Harvard in a very small way with the founding of the Lawrence School in 1847—endowed by a manufacturer of woolen goods. But that school graduated only forty nine men prior to the Civil War, and this, according to an engineering educator quoted in Charles Raborg Mann’s A Study of Engineering Education, “in the face of an unconcealed disdain on the part of the regular faculty.”

In 1985, the academic year preceding Prince Charles’s condescending remarks, Harvard awarded only 38 undergraduate degrees in engineering science, plus six master’s degrees and eight doctorates.

The Harvard celebration of 1986 seems like only yesterday, but obviously a lot has changed since then. I guess that I wasn’t looking, certainly not at Cambridge, Mass., where Harvard engineering had been making its way into the silicon age. The newly named John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences can already point to a number of accomplished graduates and distinguished faculty. It currently has more than 400 graduate students and more than 800 undergraduates, and with this enormous new grant, prospects for the future certainly look bright.

Ironically, Prince Charles’s warning of 1986 cannot be totally written off. There is still a danger that the successes of modern science and technology might “triumph over man.” (Today he would say “over human-kind.”) I say that there is still a danger since a very big worry in today’s academic world is the precipitously declining interest in the liberal arts. We cannot see clearly where this may be taking us.

Top 20 U.S. Mechanical Engineering Graduate Programs

Derived from data from the National Research Council (2010) In alphabetical order.

Brown University

California Institute of Technology

Cornell University

Duke University

Georgia Institute of Technology

Johns Hopkins University

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Northwestern University

Penn State University

Princeton University

Purdue University

Stanford University

University of California at Berkeley

University of California at San Diego

University of California at Santa Barbara

University of Colorado at Boulder

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Maryland at College Park

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Of course, Sylvanus Thayer, superintendent of the United States Military Academy from 1817 to 1833, and known as the “Father of West Point,” in his later years, gave funds to found the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, where he expected young men to be prepared “for the most responsible positions and the most difficult service.” In connection with this he conceived of a two-year graduate program to follow a four-year college course. Dartmouth eventually reduced the six-year program to five years; but the Thayer School (confession: my alma mater) is an engineering school that requires the student to earn a B.A. prior to earning a B.S.

But that is a topic for another day.

Copyright © 2016 by ASME
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