M Y T U R
I can't talk math
to the people
in my core classes;
it's like telling a joke
who doesn't get it
BY MARK W. KELLER
and rationality personified, but when it comes to my
Engineering students are supposed to be practicality
college education I am an idealist and a fool. In high
school I wanted to be an electrical engineer and, of
course, any sensible student with my aims would
have chosen a college with a large engineering department,
prestigious reputation and lots of fancy labs and research
equipment. But that's not what I did.
I chose to study engineering at a small liberal-arts univer-
sity that doesn't even offer a major in electrical engineering.
Obviously, this was not a practical choice; I came here for
more noble reasons. I wanted a broad education that would
provide me with flexibility and a value system to guide me in
my career. I wanted to open my eyes and expand my vision
by interacting with people who weren't studying science or
engineering. My parents, teachers and other adults com-
mended me for such a prudent choice. They told me I was
wise and mature beyond my 18 years, and I believed them.
I headed off to college sure I was going to have an advan-
tage over those students who went to the big engineering
"factories" where they didn't care if you had values or were
flexible. I was going to be a complete engineer: technical
genius and sensitive humanist all in one.
Now I'm not so sure. Somewhere along the line my lofty
ideals smacked into reality, as all naive visions eventually
do. After three years of struggling to balance math, physics
and engineering courses with the humanities courses of my
core, I have learned there are reasons why few engineering
students try to combine engineering with a broad liberal
curriculum in college.
The reality that has blocked my breezy path to stereotype
smasher is that engineering and the liberal arts simply
don't mix as easily as I assumed in high school. Individually
they shape a person in very different ways; together they
threaten to confuse. The struggle to reconcile the two disci-
plines is difficult.
Students who pursue more traditional liberal-arts de-
grees don't experience the dichotomy between major and,
core studies that I do. English or psychology majors find
related subjects in almost any of their core courses. They can
apply much of what they learn in "Chaucer and His Age" or
"Personality Theories" to questions raised in "American
Foreign Policy" or "Religions of the World."
But I rarely find that my ability to analyze circuits by
LaPlace transforms is applicable to the discussions held in
my religion or history courses. What I contribute is almost
always something learned in another core class, not in the
science building. On the rare occasions when I do speak from
my knowledge of engineering, there is a language barrier. I
can't talk mathematics to the people in my core classes
because most don't understand it. They force me to deliver a
diluted and popularized version of my point that often fails
to convey the impact I think it should. It's like telling a joke
to someone who doesn't get it. You say the punch line and he
looks dumbly at you, waiting for more. It's frustrating.
Not only do engineering and humanities subjects not
overlap, but each discipline demands that I think in sepa-
rate modes. When I walk into a core classroom I am expected
to look at many different aspects of existence from a single
point of view, such as ethical theory or Romantic poetry.
When I enter an electronics laboratory I am expected to
examine one thing, such as the characteristics of the ideal
transformer, from several different angles, such as the laws
of magnetic induction or the perspective of practical design.
It feels different in the classroom than in the lab.
-The differences follow me out of the classroom. When I sit
back in the recliner in my room to read a novel for "British
Literature," I open my mind to allow associations between
new knowledge and old. But when it is time to work through
a few problems for "Electromagnetic Theory," I sit down at
my desk on a hard wooden chair and shut out all of my
thoughts except those that will help me find the answers.
The two cultures: The essential approach of each discipline
can be captured in a metaphor. Imagine how each would use
a spotlight to explore a theatrical stage. The humanities
would use one colored filter and point the light all over the
stage. Engineering would focus a tight beam on one particu-
lar actor and use the entire spectrum of colored filters.
The gap between the two cultures of science and human-
ities is a common theme. But the engineer has even less in
common with the humanities than the scientist does. The
scientist at least shares the humanist's ideal of knowledge
for its own sake: the unimpeachable position of pure theory.
Engineers are denied even this because they are explicitly
concerned with using knowledge to fulfill our needs and
purposes, both glorious and mundane. There is no pure
theory in engineering. There is only what works.
Many engineering students avoid the conflict between
their major and their core by placing less emphasis on
courses outside their major. They train their thinking to be
most effective at solving well-defined problems and muddle
through the foggy issues in their core courses as best they
can. I am stubborn enough to believe I can learn to think
more freely and still be an effective engineer, and that I can
be technically honed and still be a human being.
But I know I can't smash all the stereotypes; I have
acquired some of the prejudices they are based on. My
writing professor urges me to be less rational. My religion
professor reminds me that technology cannot solve all our
problems, as much as I would like it to.
As I was preparing last spring to register for classes this
fall, I saw that I could be spending more time in the lab than
ever during my "senior year. Suddenly I wanted out. I
swapped my minors in electrical engineering and computer
science for a degree in physics, the most I could do without
postponing my graduation.
I was reluctant to switch, and someday I may return to
engineering. But for now I need to stay closer to the human-
ities of my core so that I do not abandon part of myself before
I know who I really am.
Mark W Keller is a physics major at Pacific Lutheran
University in Tacoma, Wash.
NOVEMBER 1987 4