Solanki: An open letter on STEM elitism at CWRU

The case for a liberal arts education for engineers


Clarissa Cuevas

STEM majors often criticize majors such as psychology, without realizing the benefits the subject brings to the world.

As engineers, we are taught that we move the world. We build. We design. We create. If it has electricity running through it, if it uses computers, if it is made of any material, if it was manufactured in a factory, if it was transported, machined, designed, distilled, implanted or synthesized, we made it.

Take a moment and go outside. Look around you. Now remove everything from your environment that fits one of those categories.

You’ll find fairly quickly that nothing is left. And that is the core of the engineer’s arrogance.

Try the same exercise with what a psychology major does. Or an English major. Or a history major. The immediate effect and its impact is far less tangible. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant.

For any STEM major at Case Western Reserve University who has ever “jokingly” belittled their friends in business, the humanities or any other seemingly “easier” major, this is what you forget. And while some at CWRU might claim that is an overstatement, I would argue it isn’t for a school where the running joke is that BME stands for “Business Major Eventually.” The STEM majors make fun of the business and accounting majors, who in turn make fun of the psychology and humanities majors, and we all accept that as “just the way it is.” While it’s true that statistically employment prospects at career fairs are higher for engineers and business majors, we forget why the humanities are so important and that money isn’t everything.

I’m sure you’ve heard all the classic arguments for why engineers and STEM majors need a backing in the liberal arts: because we need to communicate, because we need to write and because we need to broaden our horizons. I can hear the collective groan from all my readers as I write this. Considering the number of times I’ve heard these clichéd arguments cited, I would be lying if I said I didn’t sympathize. The truth is, engineers need a liberal arts education because we are people who “do” things, and there is nothing more dangerous than a “do-er” who doesn’t know what they are doing. The professors at the school of engineering can try to give us the technical protection we need from this fate by educating us about how to be competent at our jobs. But who will teach us the stories and ethics of what we really “do”?

Ironically I think the most poignant moment in my engineering education so far has come not in a traditional engineering class, but in Professor Jim Sheeler’s class on war journalism.

I know that my line of work will probably involve me working for a defense contractor at some point. I know that I may well end up working on embedded electrical systems that will be used on the next generation of cruise missiles or the next generation of American fighter aircraft. Which is why my eyes were glued to the screen last semester in Sheeler’s class as we watched live archival footage from Al Jazeera of their Baghdad offices being attacked by the United States Air Force in 2003, during the American invasion of Iraq. An American A-10 Warthog in attack formation appeared overhead, mid-broadcast, launching missiles and disappearing off the screen. A camera on the roof of those offices captured the impact moments later, as journalist Tareq Ayyoub was blown to pieces.

American engineers built that aircraft and those missiles. In fact I know the father of a friend of mine worked on the engines of that aircraft.

It’s one experience to learn about combustion reactions in CHEM 111 and calculate impact velocities and rocket trajectories in PHYS 121. It’s an entirely different experience to watch video of an American aircraft designed by engineers who had the same education we get everyday use those principles to kill a journalist in such graphic and minute detail, and to hear the stories of those who were in the building that day and of those who knew Tareq.

While gruesome and sad (and purposeful or not), I understand such is the nature of war. I have no qualms designing the next generation of weapons systems to protect American freedom. But I make that statement with full knowledge of the human cost of war and the stories of the people it affects, not the future size of my paycheck from Lockheed Martin.

In light of this, perhaps we should give more respect to those among us who willfully apply their talents to the fields that better help us understand the world around us. Engineers make tangible things, but it is all meaningless if we don’t have people that study and can answer the intangible questions that help us understand their use. I know many engineers whose real passions lie elsewhere, but who ultimately picked engineering because it offered greater stability and monetary opportunity. We ought to give more respect to those of us who have the courage to follow their passions even if it means turning down the siren song of success that a more “practical” major might offer. These people play a vital role in not just educating us as engineers, but society as a whole. As engineers we may perceive ourselves to be the elite, but how elite are we if we only “do” instead of learning to also think, listen and understand?

Rishi Solanki is a second-year majoring in Electrical Engineering and minoring in Finance. He writes on business, politics and campus issues.

Update Nov. 6, 2015, 4:05 p.m.: The country discussed was updated from “Afghanistan” to “Iraq.”