Symposium focuses on humane requirements of engineering


Recent radical changes in engineering education and the connection of the history of technology to engineering practice were themes at a symposium last Friday honoring Elting Morison, retired MIT historian of technology who died earlier this year. Engineers, humanists and graduate students debated the place of social, economic, political and cultural contexts in the training of problem-solving engineers.

The meeting was organized by the Program in Science, Technology and Society and the School of Humanities and Social Science, both of which Professor Morison helped establish.

According to Leo Marx, Kenan Professor Emeritus in STS, Professor Morison's chief concern was "how to organize a technological world we can live in." Of New England ancestry but brought up in Milwaukee, Professor Morison combined a pragmatic sense of how devices, such as naval guns, worked with "the old Puritan subtext, with its obstinate grip on the separation of means and ends."

STS graduate student David Mindel, who spent three years in the group designing robotic submarines at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, spoke of the thesis he is completing on systems-control work between World Wars I and II. The history of technology is not separate from engineering, Mr. Mindel said, and may help engineers reach their goals.

"Seeing technology as a social product highlights how a young engineer can make a difference. Many engineers find themselves at the mercy of large processes. Curious as they are, engineers learn in school to ignore psychology, semantics and politics. Social and political issues are a legitimate part of the engineer's work. They call for equal rigor. They are not just valuable or doable, but required of people entrusted with technological knowledge." The aim, Mr. Mindel said, is a world "under human control," as Elting Morison envisaged.

Also speaking were STS graduate students Greg Galer, who is working on how academic history and the "public history" of museums and other popular media can help each other, and Jennifer Mnookin, a lawyer working on the acceptance of photographic evidence in the courtroom. Wade Roush, the Boston correspondent for Science magazine, who received his PhD in the STS program last year, said that the history of technology "forces people to rethink basic institutions and whose interests they serve."

John M. Staudenmeier, SJ, of the University of Detroit-Mercy, who recently became editor-in-chief of the quarterly Technology and Culture, said that the history of technology "can give a sense of the pace of decision-making. How much time was given to the subtle options? How quickly do you have to decide?"

Professor Moses said that engineering education at MIT is undergoing major redirection of the sort Professor Morison took part in 40 years ago. The emphasis on "engineering science" in the wake of World War II was not done "at zero cost." The approach de-emphasized design, hands-on work, management and the general context in which engineering takes place.

The costs became more evident, Professor Moses said, when American industry confronted the challenge from Japan. In response, MIT programs such as Leaders for Manufacturing, and the newly approved System Design and Management have been set up as an alternative for engineers who today, seeing their careers blocked, consider going for business administration degrees.

Shrinkage of industrial laboratories is forcing reassessment of PhD programs, Professor Moses said, and widening of information highways is reinforcing interest in programs for students at off-campus industrial sites-despite worry about "doing too much remotely." In such a time of change, he said, engineering education may become more like liberal arts education, which often leads to professional training in fields such as law. "Engineers are listening" to debates about the social impact of engineering "and are eager to participate," he said. "Engineering provides modes of thought in problem-solving, an optimistic view, a positive outlook that could contribute to public thought."

Thomas Parke Hughes, a historian of technology and visiting professor at MIT who recently retired from the University of Pennsylvania, said Professor Morison looked forward to engineers regarding themselves as designers and managers of the human-built environment, as the architects Le Corbusier and Wright did.

"We need to design and shape a universe of our own manufacture that responds to the complex, even messy array of human desires," he said. "Words can express virtue. So can the systems you design." He called on the Science, Technology and Society Program to learn more about large technological systems "to gain the ear of engineers."

Professor Hughes said he hoped that Provost Moses' plan for trans-disciplinary projects "gets off the drawing board." He added, referring to the late MIT professor Jerrold R. Zacharias, a noted organizer of projects in national defense and education, "It will take about 10 Zacks."

At the dinner following the symposium, retired Sloan Foundation vice president Arthur L. Singer Jr. said Professor Morison worked for many years on the foundation's projects to increase attention to technology in liberal arts education, and to commission a series of popular histories of 20th-century technology. "He had uncanny institutional savvy. He had insight into the status quo and knew when change was needed." Professor Hughes added that Morison "opened a new and grand perspective" for the history of technology. "Eloquence was in. Pedantry was out."

Professor Merton Flemings, former head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, spoke of the Peterborough, NH, connections of Professor Morison and his two brothers, the late Robert Morison, MD, who also taught at MIT, and John Morison, long the head of the Hitchiner Manufacturing Co., the foundry that, according to STS Professor Kenneth Keniston, organizer of the symposium, has become "one of the most successful high tech firms in the world." Professor Flemings, who with his students worked with problems of the foundry, said, "Elting was the humanist. No other humanist has taken such an interest in metal rods."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 6, 1995.


Topics: Technology and society, Special events and guest speakers

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