Do Engineering Professors Want to Be Brains-on-a-Stick?

I went to a small reception for a staff member in my former department and met quite a few of my now-retired colleagues.  It was really a pleasure tripping down nostalgia lane with them, and the surprise of all of us showing up for the same fifteen minute period (in a 3 hour reception) did not go unnoticed by one of my colleagues.  He said, “Dave, you know that the chance of all of us showing up in this way is highly unlikely and is difficult to explain rationally.”

I said, “Yes, I know.  It’s a mystery,” and a I meant it in a authentic way as I’ve been contemplating the things we don’t know, different ways of knowing than we teach in engineering school, and even the things that we can’t know.

He said, “There must be some deterministic explanation. To think otherwise is surrender.”

His use of the word “surrender” rocked me back on my heals, but it seems to me the bias revealed by the word, a bias that all can be known, and that all is subject to rational explanation, although expressed somewhat extremely, is held by many who teach engineering today.

This attitude is increasingly a problem. Many who would make successful engineers shun or leave an engineering education because (1) it treats students as (left) brains on a stick, (2) anything non-cognitive, actually anything not subject to logical scrutiny, is treated as nonsensical, and (3) emotion, body sense, and any form of intuition are not permissible topics of discussion, let alone subjects of study and learning.

Increasingly employers and students alike want more wholeness as part of the engineering educated and educational system. The medical profession has struggled and is struggling with similar issues, and one might think that the pretense of objectivity might be easier to drop in a “naturally” caring profession, but this has not been the case.  Rachel Naomi Remen has written two books that tell stories from her journey as pediatrician to cancer counselor, and the lessons she shares are possibly applicable to engineering education.

Take a look at Kitchen Table Wisdom (here) and My Grandfather’s Blessings (here) for moving accounts that might help us achieve a more whole, human approach to engineering education.