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Engineering as a Liberal Discipline: Two, Three, or Four Cultures?

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Linking Engineering and Liberal Education

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.537.1 - 25.537.18



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Paper Authors


Robert O. Grondin Arizona State University, Polytechnic

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Robert Grondin has B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan. He joined the faculty of Arizona State University in 1983, serving first in the Department of Electrical Engineering in the Fulton Schools of Engineering on ASU’s Tempe campus and more recently in the Department of Engineering of the College of Technology and innovation on ASU’s Polytechnic campus.

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Engineering as a Liberal Discipline: Two, Three or Four Cultures?In his famous essay The Two Cultures, C.P. Snow suggested that our educated culture has splitinto two camps, one of natural scientists and one of literary scholars. In a follow-on essay Snowexplained that he had considered a framework in which engineering and applied science wouldhave been separated from “pure” science but had rejected it, choosing instead to includeengineering in the natural science culture (Snow, 1959 and 1964). Recently, the psychologistJerome Kagan has formalized and extended Snow’s framework to three cultures: naturalscience, social science and the humanities (Kagan, 2009). Engineering is not directly addressedby Kagan but his description of the envy directed towards the natural scientists by the other twocultures clearly describes that envy as being based in part on the public assessment that the researchproducts of natural science have “reduced disease burdens, prolonged life, lightened manual labor, easedcommunication and travel, and contributed to national economies.” Engineering clearly should sharesome of this credit. I believe that when both Snow and Kagan clump engineering in with natural science,they each provide an example of a broad failure to understand the differences between engineering andnatural science. In the paper we will consider engineering as a fourth possible “culture” andexplore how the associated cultural differences affect our understanding of the relationship ofengineering to the liberal arts.The framework which we will use is the framework of Kagan. Kagan compares the cultures ofnatural science, social science and the humanities along the following set of nine dimensions: • primary interest; • sources of evidence and degree to which they are controlled; • primary vocabulary and degree to which concepts are generalized; • degree of influence of historical contingencies; • degree to which ethical concerns influence questions and conclusions; • degree of dependence on financial support from government & industry; • likely size of collaborative teams; • importance to national economy; • criteria by which work is judged to be beautiful.This comparison brings out some important differences between engineering and natural sciencealong the dimensions of primary interest, sources of evidence, primary vocabulary, historicalcontingency, importance of ethics, and the dimension of aesthetic criteria. The implications ofthese differences on our understanding of the relationship of engineering to the liberal arts willbe discussed.Kagan, J. (2009). The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences and the Humanities in the 21st Century. New York: Cambridge University Press. Snow, C. P. (1959 and 1964). The Two Cultures and A Second Look. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. 

Grondin, R. O. (2012, June), Engineering as a Liberal Discipline: Two, Three, or Four Cultures? Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21295

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