Why Engineering Students Need The Humanities, Ctd

A reader writes:

I just read this recent post, and I was rather offended by John Horgan’s insistence that scientists and engineers only learn facts and do not learn skepticism in their classes. Really? I’m a scientist, and I can tell you that as you learn your craft, you learn how there are gaps in knowledge, how uncertain so many things are, and how you have to critically think about all of the problems that you confront. An introductory and mandatory science class might just focus on the facts, but if it is, it’s a bad course. Seriously, if all you want your non-science students to learn is a list of rote facts, then those students are not being taught anything useful, least of all, science.

Another turns the topic around:

My bet is that STEM students get a lot more in the way of humanities education than humanities students get in the way of science and mathematics education.

How much are history majors taught about the importance of the development of the theories of thermodynamics on the industrial revolution (and vice versa)? How many philosophy students have contemplated the connection between the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, and modern and post-modern thought? Do BAs, MAs or PhDs in the humanities even know who James Clerk Maxwell, Erwin Schrodinger, Paul AM Dirac, Murray Gell-Mann are? If you’re looking for a group in the academy who are cloistered in their own spheres of knowledge and ignorant of the works of others, I don’t think you have to go too far from the English or Art departments at a major university.

How about making sure that pre-law students are well trained in statistics so they can understand how to read and understand a scientific study on the risks of new medications? How about requiring a 14th century German literature major to take a chemistry lecture and lab course for no practical purpose but based on the idea that it’s still good for them to be able to read the periodic table? There is a tremendous amount of scientific illiteracy among people generally. Perhaps the best place to start is among the most educated people in the country, but who probably don’t know the difference between nuclear fusion and frequency modulation.

A few more readers sound off:

I graduated in 1971 with a Bachelors of Engineering from The Cooper Union, a small college with three schools – Art, Architecture and Engineering.  The Schools were distinct, and the Engineering students spent their days in a separate building from the Art and Architecture students, but there was one mandatory course that every sophomore had to take.  It was an interdisciplinary Humanities course that covered the years from 1750 to 1850.  In small classes and in joint lectures we studied art, music, history, exploration, science, medicine, literature, religion, invention – if it occurred in the years from 1750 to 1850, we studied it.

Before our first large lecture I could hear students from each of the schools grumbling that it was a waste of time to learn all this extraneous information – we didn’t have the time for this useless course.  What could Art students learn about science and technology that would help them be better artists?  How could Engineering students use art or music?  But before long we looked forward to each lecture. We were learning that any advance in one area affected society as a whole.  Advances in chemistry led to better paints, advances in building materials changed architectural designs.  Small or large, we learned that life is interconnected.

If I had to list one and only one college course that changed my life, it would be this one.  I’m so very grateful that it was mandatory, and that every sophomore attended the lectures together.    Because artist, architect, engineer,  writer, politician, religious leader, citizen, we each have something to learn from the others.


I’m a older chemical engineer (I graduated in 1970).  My school (Ohio University) required Humanities credits to graduate.  I found them valuable, but not in the way you’d think.  What I learned from them was that to get a good grade, I needed to listen, and then respond in a way that was “appropriate” for that professor – not what necessarily what I thought.  You can’t do that in a math or chemistry class.  It actually gave me better skills when relating to others in the workplace, as opposed to the Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) model of interaction.  I can’t remember crap from that Film Appreciation class I took, other than I never did really comprehend why it was so important to appreciate the lighting and camera angles from Dracula.  Got a good grade though …