Shakespeare, not Statistics: Why we need more liberal engineering education

This opinion will engender few friendly feelings towards me, but I believe that Mines should have an admissions essay. Beyond that, I think that we, as students, should be required to take more Humanities Arts and Social Science (HASS) classes, write more for our classes, read more works of classic literature, and be allowed to take far more electives outside the purview of our major. Perhaps I salvaged a modicum of my reputation with the last point.

In general, Mines students do not excel at writing. I would know, I still struggle to this day. We are, from the beginning of the universities application process, inculcated into a mindset that reading and writing are obtuse wastes of time that pull us away from our true calling of tinkering and thinking about math. We could not be farther from the truth.

Mines is the collegiate manifestation of the Gaokao — the Chinese scholastic test that has been criticized internationally for focusing too much on rote memorization. We sit in our classes, take copious notes, cram last-minute for a test, and then subsequently purge all of the information from our brains. Mines is a crucible of stress and a proverbial requirer of flashcards and Quizlet pages.

Many of us when we graduate will not remember Mohr’s circle from Moore’s law. But that is not to say that we wasted our time at Mines. What we walk away with, beyond our degree, is an ability to solve problems — not a veritable cornucopia of facts. Engineering, Mathematics, and Physics students all consistently rank as some of the highest performers on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT): an exam that focuses heavily on the ability to think critically and logically reason. And not so surprising, engineering school sets students up for understanding engineering. Unfortunately, it does less well in preparing them for the world of business, teamwork, consulting, and the general ability to communicate with clients.

The most valuable skills we can have are to read and write. Good writing forces us to think clearly. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, said: “there is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” And Norman Augustine, a former CEO of Lockheed Martin, said: “one of the stronger correlations with advancement through management ranks was the ability of an individual to express clearly his or her thoughts in writing.”

Our modern culture and society have a noxious attitude towards liberal educations as being, well too liberal, and a general waste of someone’s time and money. But that view misses the point of the liberal education. It has never been about giving someone the direct skills they need to go into a job: that is the purpose of vocational schools. A liberal education is about cultivating the mind and the person to be a better human being, a better writer, a better thinker, and yes, even a better engineer.

I am not arguing that we should abandon the endeavor of engineering school altogether, just that we need to think more about the direction in which we take it. Our classes on Statics, Statistics, and Solid State Chemistry are essential facets of our education. But are they demonstrably more important than Shakespeare and Sociology?

The balance does not need to be equal; it just needs to exist. HASS should not be an afterthought — it is as integral to our engineering education as Calculus and Physics. Students need more latitude to take the classes that interest them rather than being restrained by the arbitrary convictions of their faculty. And the desire of students to participate in activities beyond their engineering classes — like USG or club sports — should not be met with the begrudging consternations of teachers that it so often is.

Students need a chance to flourish and an opportunity to learn and explore their passions. They also should be expected to read and write more. The obligations go both ways. I hope for everyone’s sake that we hold up both ends of the bargain.

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