Realize the importance of humanities in engineering

Introducing the iPad 2 in March 2011, the late and great (and well over-cited) Steve Jobs remarked, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

Admittedly, it might be kind of stretch to try and directly link an understanding of Shakespeare to the design of the latest smart phone. However, it is becoming increasingly more apparent that the humanities play a much more significant role in technological innovation than they are often given credit for.

Even before his major success at Apple, Jobs spent time at Pixar trying to merge technology with the arts. As he stated, “One of the greatest achievements at Pixar was that we brought these two cultures together and got them working side by side.” He did this by designing the Pixar campus so that instead of having three separate buildings for the computer scientists, animators, and executives, the three sides were connected by a giant atrium that encouraged interaction.

Pixar’s chief creative officer explained the governing philosophy behind the setup, “Technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology.”

This is more than just rhetoric.

A 2008 survey of CEOs found that only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just two percent held degrees in mathematics. The rest had degrees in a variety of industries including business, healthcare, arts and the humanities.

Vivek Wadhwa, who worked with researchers from Duke and Harvard to conduct the survey, believes that there is a lot behind these numbers. As he stated in a 2012 Washington Post article, “I believe humanity majors … make the most visionary technology leaders.”

The reason is simple. Technologists and engineers focus on features and too often get wrapped up in elements that may be cool for geeks but are useless for most people. In contrast, humanities majors can more easily focus on people and how they interact with technology.”

That’s not to say, of course, that Apple should fire all their engineers and hire history and philosophy majors. The role of technical knowledge is critical, but engineers need to have exposure to disciplines beyond their technical specialty.

Engineering students on campus understand that developing the technology of tomorrow requires the tactical application of math and science, but they often take the creative component for granted. The reality is that good ideas come from a fundamental understanding of consumer need, which the humanities provide. Therefore, humanities courses deserve a lot more credit than the “easy gen ed” label that many engineering students give them.

This has already been acknowledged by universities to an extent. The engineering department at the University requires engineers to take 18 hours of liberal education credit to graduate. At the surface this sounds sufficient, however when you consider that many incoming students fulfill many of these hours with AP credits and courses listed on the Facebook page “Easy classes at U of I,” you have to wonder if students are really getting the most out of this requirement.

A recent publication from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences titled, “The Heart of the Matter,” outlined how the U.S. can improve humanities education moving forward. The suggestions included encouraging all disciplines to address “Grand Challenges” of humanity as well as increased global exposure to international affairs and culture.

While government and universities can certainly have an impact on this issue, their actions alone shouldn’t be considered the heart of the matter. Institutions are willing to make necessary changes if students demand them. Perhaps the greatest question now is if students themselves can realize the value in humanities, and use this genuine interest to influence change in the future.

Furthermore, engineers who want to gain a better understanding of humanity shouldn’t wait around for an academic program to offer the opportunity. Instead, they should take it upon themselves to seek out the plethora of books, films, music and other forms of human expression that can help offer this insight outside of a formal setting.

Andrew is a junior in Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]