The debate between the scholarly Bachelor of Arts and the practical Bachelor of Science is but a starting point to question the true purpose of education. Should we pursue an undergraduate education to obtain a job and recoup the cost of college? Yes, say some proponents of the engineering education. Should we pursue an undergraduate education to obtain an empathic understanding of the world around us? Yes, say proponents of the liberal arts education.
In decades past, choosing a field of study was a value judgement. Valuing a holistic, humanistic education meant studying the liberal arts. Valuing an immediate job and steady salary meant engineering. Although the noble ideals of the liberal arts sound appealing, they are difficult to defend in the midst of a global recession. Indeed, my friends studying the liberal arts often find it difficult to champion their degrees to curious freshmen as they haemorrhage hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, especially when my engineering peers receive job offers from prestigious Silicon Valley companies.
In the current environment, it becomes necessary to compare engineering degrees to liberal arts degrees in economic terms. If we value education as an investment, what type of degree should upcoming generations pursue?
Using engineering’s “return on investment” mindset, an argument can be made that the liberal arts education has the greater ROI. While liberal arts students require a higher capital investment (often continuing studies with graduate school and beginning careers with lower-paying jobs), their potential return is also higher.
Liberal arts graduates utilize their holistic education to develop solutions through unique and creative methodologies. Though a narrowly trained engineer can determine why her software code isn’t working, a student of whole systems has multiple tools with which to lead his organization. Over time (15-25 years), talented liberal arts “investors” will recoup returns as high or higher than engineering investors. In the long-run (2-3 generations), liberal arts majors will best utilize a knowledge and service economy, sending engineering work abroad to places churning out technicians who will work harder, longer, and for lower wages than American counterparts.
While my economics and engineering professors may quibble with this ROI analysis, we must think of the return beyond simple financial gain. In the long-run, a thriving democracy will require creative genius, thought leadership, interdisciplinary awareness, and an understanding of people. To be sure, if you want the comfort and security of a well-paying job immediately upon graduation, engineering is a safe route. But in her book Not for Profit, philosopher and law professor Martha Nussbaum posits that a liberal arts education is as pragmatic as freedom: “Education based mainly on profitability in the global market [produces] greedy obtuseness and a technically trained docility that threaten the very life of democracy itself.”
Siddhartha R. Oza is a Senior at Stanford University concentrating in Earth Systems—a major that integrates multiple perspectives.
Engineering is more liberal than the liberal arts
Words are important; that much must be granted to the liberal arts. So let’s not use fancy words to diminish each other.
I would never disparage the importance of a liberal arts education in the same way that those studying the classics haughtily dismiss engineering as “greedy obtuseness and a technically trained docility.” Our engineering colleges are not simply trade schools turning out cogs for the big wheel of business (not that there is anything wrong with trade schools or cogs that keep the big wheel turning). Indeed a fine engineering education has at its core the foundation of the liberal arts: math, chemistry, physics, humanities, and the social sciences.
But whereas liberal arts students too often find themselves looking backward to the accomplished works of dead, white, men (albeit, brilliant, dead, white, men), engineering students are more present and future oriented.
To engineer is to be aware of a problem and to find a solution to that problem: India is a country with an inadequate infrastructure, so civil engineers create roads, dams, airports, and bridges; America is overly dependent on oil, so environmental engineers join forces with materials engineers to build solar panels (not to be outdone, mechanical engineers and electrical engineers team up and develop wind turbines); and with the world becoming flat and requiring new ways of integrating teams and the information that flows between them, industrial engineers innovate organizational dynamics and computer scientists build smart and connected information networks. The list continues with specialized biomedical engineers and aeronautical engineers changing the interiors of our bodies and exteriors of outer space.
All forms of education provide students with ways to think. Let’s consider engineering’s epistemology: although most institutes of technology offer human factors engineering as a niche area, truth be told, all engineers ply their knowledge with an understanding of human needs. When you wake up tomorrow, marvel at how one engineer thoughtfully considered how the toothbrush should feel in your hands and mouth, another engineer ensured that the temperature of the water would be just right, and a whole host of other engineers helped to ensure that the container of the cereal kept your breakfast fresh, the delivery of your newspaper (digital or hardcopy) was on time, the car turned on with a simple flick of your wrist, and the flow on the highway got you to work on time.
Engineers are taught to think about humans in a practical way. Real people need real solutions to the problems they face everyday and for the opportunities they can’t yet perceive. Engineers see a problem, solve the problem, and keep making liberal improvements to keep changing the world of humans. And they change the world by developing ideas that have utility. As that great engineer Thomas Edison said, “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.”
Dr. Rajesh C. Oza is a change management consultant,who appreciates the right brain and the left.