To focus the large issue of choosing between the humanities or technology in higher education, I think it should be a both/and decision.
The humanities already contain many stories about appropriate use of tools, such as the cautionary story of Babel in the Book of Genesis, of men attempting to build a tower to reach God, and instead achieving only social discord.
And in our own time, we have Ben Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker to put away his flight controls, and instead be guided by the Force.
The language of engineering, however, has usually not considered 'soft' subjects, like kindness or social service or the common good. In fact, a doctrine of ethical neutrality has been used by many technocrats in the past to deny any responsibility for their work, claiming they were simply following orders.
What would it take to introduce social considerations, a sense of conscience, into engineering programs?
And what would it take to re-interpret the humanist tradition today to better understand how much of it has always had to do with appropriate and inappropriate use of our tools, our talents and our time in this world?
I think humanities, ethics, and such are an essential part of any education, engineering or not. I think they're being cut because of economic considerations. Decisions are being made based on a zero sum assumption. To add another math or physics course into a 4-year degree, humanities must give up one. To me this is the core problem. I think that the program should be extended to make room for the necessary additions to the curriculum rather than deplete some other aspect. Of course, that will probably drive away a lot of students because of the extra cost in time and dollars... So there are no easy answers.
I believe you need to start by asking the question why are we advocating so heavily that US students prepare for the STEM pursuits when recent graduates are having such a miserable time finding jobs, and corporations are relentless in either outsourcing or hiring cheaper engineers from abroad, and if they're brought in on H1B visas they're just discarded after three years anyway. If we're only doing it to further lower the wage base by increasing competition then that decision is outright amoral. Are the managers making these decisions more tightly bound to their company's stock price than to the greater good of society? Should we make more of an effort to give MBA students an education that stresses not only a general system of ethics but also teach them that there's a social cost (often paid for by higher taxes which they'll wind up paying into anyway) of being so quick to dump prior hires on society's scrap heap? I realize that wasn't really the focus of this discussion but you need to start by asking whether the STEM demand is really legitimate in the first place before you inquire whether an alternate education "has as much merit". I also wonder why it's so difficult for this issue to develop any political traction and whether this is primarily the result of the political lobbying against it being too successful and of the money that pays for it "always being the louder component of free speech" although I'd agree the discussion shouldn't devolve into specific political issues. Just my thoughts.
Tom, sorry I missed the discussion, but it was at 5AM in Australia, and after a hard week I needed my beauty sleep.....
It's long been a complaint of mine that mankind's technological progress has not been matched by social progress. People generally behave worse towards each other than they used to. That applies to dictators like Mugabe in Zimbabwe where I used to live, right down to the idiots on the corner partying with loud music at 1 AM, and yes to people making low quality technical products that infuriate us.
I loved RichQ's 3 rules. And I think that goes to the crux of the matter. If someone else is following the iron rule (do unto others before they do to you) it does not help if you are following the golden rule.
I think we as a society are too tolerant of people that do not follow the golden rules. Any engineer will know of the plethora of rules that need to be followed when designing or making something to make sure that it cannot injure or kill anyone, and the stiff penalties that can be levied if you don't follow the rules - just follow the discussion on Toyota in these columns. Why then don't we do the same at a social level?
Susan, you commented on the use of drones: "I don't want someone in another country dropping bombs from drones on me, so maybe my country should stop dropping bombs via drones on other countries." Except that someone from another country already dropped 4 airliners on you, on 9/11. I do take your point, and I don't have any easy solutions, but you can't negotiate or make treaties with terrorists or extremists. So what DO you do? Even at a global level, the UN tolerates all sorts of dubious states as members. UN membership should come at a price, that of running a just and fair state that treats its people and those of other states properly, and also have privileges, of non-agression, being able to get aid, and not being ostracised by other states. A kind of carrot and stick approach to making good countries.
Very interesting dscussion Tom, thanks for initiating it.