The Tantrum Over Engineering

The humanities shouldn’t feel threatened by the rise of SEAS

At Harvard, the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences have always been like a trio of squabbling siblings. Humanities are the entitled elder brother of the bunch who sees the Yard as his birthright and is confused as to why no one sees how generous he is in splitting the inheritance. Hard sciences are the quiet middle sister who keeps house and whom everyone overlooks until the prizes roll in. Social sciences are the flashy youngest sister, stealing from both her older siblings and calling herself the new and improved model. Now, engineering and the applied sciences have intruded, like visiting cousins who are tolerated until they suck up too much attention. The three siblings ask: How long are they going to stay?

The manifestation of this is tomorrow’s unnecessarily controversial faculty vote over new engineering majors. At last month’s faculty meeting, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences presented a proposal for two new undergraduate concentrations, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, and many humanities faculty members fought it as if they were defending the Alamo. “I worry that the size of the concentration is driven by the professional demands rather than the demands of the college,” said History Chair James T. Kloppenberg. “If a concentration that has 20 course requirements is structurally irreconcilable with a liberal arts education, which I think it arguably is, why create even more concentrations like these?” said German professor Peter J. Burgard.

Lest anyone mistake this for something it is not, this is an entirely symbolic battle. If faculty members were truly worried about students bearing an overly heavy course load, they would have made a fuss about it during the five years that engineering sciences itself has been a concentration. Getting a Bachelor of Science in the field already takes twenty credits and can be done with a mechanical or electrical engineering subspecialty. If they were truly worried about pre-professionalism, they would attack easy lecture-based courses with disengaged students like those in the economics and government departments. This tantrum is really about the humanities feeling marginalized by the University.

It is an open secret that humanities have had a rough past couple years at Harvard. Roughly half of the budget of FAS comes from endowment returns, so the humanities got burned when the endowment fell 30 percent in the financial crisis. To save money, Dean Michael D. Smith froze faculty hiring, which is still only moving at a trickle. FAS departments are furious at losing junior faculty to rival universities and are scared of losing intellectual virility as the tenured faculty ages. FAS administration also cut funding for regional centers and flat-lined budgets for smaller departments. And this fall, it went for the sacred cow—it slashed the budget of the library system.

In contrast, SEAS is thriving. Because Harvard’s professional schools set their own budgets and raise their own money, SEAS was able to survive the financial crisis better. It has a ten-year plan to hire 50 new faculty members. The end-of-term Computer Science 50 fair has everything but free pony rides, and this year Engineering Sciences 50 also got t-shirts. In February, President Drew G. Faust announced a $100,000 prize for Social Innovation—sponsored by what is effectively engineering’s entrepreneurial arm, the Innovation Lab. On top of this, the sciences in general will dominate Harvard’s land grab in Allston.

The humanities have also been on the defensive ideologically. The academic environment of Harvard seems to be shifting toward the practical, as shown by the new General Education curriculum, new secondary fields in health policy and possibly social change, and increasing power of the business, public health, and education schools.

But SEAS is not like other professional schools. Although engineering is practical, it is also intellectual. To reject this is to cling to an antiquated view of education that sells short the “liberal arts” idea. Engineering is a cognitive framework worth exploring independent of careerism. Its students do not necessarily plan to be engineers. Many choose the concentration because they find it enlightening, stimulating, and worthwhile. This is evidenced by the popularity of CS 50, a course now rivaled in enrollment only by Economics 10. Designing, building, and programming are ways of looking at the world that ought to be seen as important modes of analysis.

In this vein, FAS and SEAS can actually help each other. A Harvard with strong humanities is a great place for engineers, because they learn not just how to build structures but also how to use them responsibly. A Harvard with strong engineering is a great place for philosophers, because they learn how to communicate their brilliance in technological language—the increasingly dominant global medium of exchange. (I can’t count how many times I have looked at a course website for a humanities class and wished the head TF had taken CS 50.)

At this point, a University without a solid engineering department is about as naked as one without an English department. It’s time the College adopts engineering. They’ll make the family that much stronger.

Anita J. Joseph ‘12, an editorial chair emeritus, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Follow her on Twitter at @anita__joseph.

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