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Obstacles To A Liberal Engineering Education

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2000 Annual Conference


St. Louis, Missouri

Publication Date

June 18, 2000

Start Date

June 18, 2000

End Date

June 21, 2000



Page Count


Page Numbers

5.474.1 - 5.474.12

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Martha C. Wilson

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 2793

Obstacles to a Liberal Engineering Education

Martha C. Wilson University of Wisconsin, Stout

I. Introduction

“I ponder the grim fact that Greece, for all its art and philosophy, and Rome, for all its wealth and technology, both in the end toppled and fell. Perhaps a culture that weds competence to grace, and wisdom to know-how, would persevere and flourish where others have failed. Such a culture would have at its core a cadre of civilized engineers.”1

A civilized engineer would understand and appreciate the interrelationships between engineering and society, technology and history, and art and science - an understanding derived from a liberal education.

The recognition of the importance of liberal studies in engineering education goes back to the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862.2 Since that time there has been concern that engineering education is not successfully incorporating liberal studies into the curriculum, beginning with the first major study of American engineering education directed by Dr. Charles Mann of the University of Chicago.3 Among its recommendations was that students be taught so as to develop character, and surveys of 7000 members of professional engineering societies ranked “character” at the top of a list of 6 attributes while “technique” came in last place. The results of this study, completed in 1918, are echoed in other studies that followed over the next 50 years, including the Wickenden Studies (1930), the Jackson report (1939), the Grinter report (1955), and the Olmstead report (1968), all indicating concern for the lack of integration of liberal arts into engineering education.4

In spite of the importance of a liberal engineering education, the issue is still debated today, as it has been for the past 100 years. This may be due, in part, to the continual "crises" that portray the state of higher education. According to Lucas, "If there is an authentic crisis at present . . . it is that the wrangling and contention, the endless disputations and hand-wringing, over the state of undergraduate education in America have become so routine as to obscure rather than to reveal what has actually taken place over the span of the last quarter century or so in academe."5

Although the liberal education of engineers may not be perceived as a crisis, it has always been an issue in engineering education, and is growing in importance as society embraces the “business paradigm”. The purpose of this paper is to discuss how higher education has adopted the business paradigm in response to reduced public funding, and to provide examples of how this change has created obstacles to a liberal engineering education. The paper concludes with a discussion of ABET 2000 and recommendations for improving the liberal education of engineers. First, however, the benefits of a liberal engineering education are presented in the next section.

Wilson, M. C. (2000, June), Obstacles To A Liberal Engineering Education Paper presented at 2000 Annual Conference, St. Louis, Missouri.

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