Wednesday, July 01, 2009

What to Do With Engineers?

This is always a problem in the professions and "knowledge class" discussion. Engineers apply a body of knowledge to problems in a way that can not readily be routinized. This is the starting point for considering a profession. Yet they are often the outliers in other cultural measures of professionals.

Alvin Gouldner, in The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class made a distinction between "intellectuals" and the "technical intelligentsia." They differ in the kinds of knowledge they use. They are both part of the "new class" - what later came to be called the "knowledge class" - because they both make their living from knowledge that is essential to running the economic system. That is the Marxist part of Gouldner's determination of a class. They are also both part of the knowledge class because they rise to the defense of knowledge and reason when they are under attack. When the thugs burn books, the engineers join the barricades. When rationality, or even science, are under attack, engineers and cultural specialists stand shoulder to shoulder.

I think what unifies all professions is that the body of knowledge they must apply is vast, so applying the right bit of knowledge requires judgment. What unifies most professions is that they apply knowledge to people, and people are infinitely various. A vast body of knowledge applied to varied people makes for lots of judgments. Engineers apply a vast body of knowledge, too. This requires judgment. But for the most part, the problems they apply that knowledge to are not people. That makes their knowledge work different in kind from that of most other professionals.

Nonetheless, I am counting engineers as professionals.


Mac said...

I find it interesting that a possible definitional breakpoint in the discussion is over engineers as professionals. Having been on the receiving end, I might have expected it to be lawyers--and there is a better argument there, I think.

Today the "profession of law" is losing out to the "business of law." While many young lawyers still apply a defined body of knowledge to the solution to a problem, they have lost the ability or desire to understand the system in which they are applying their knowledge.

Perhaps it is because engineers, lawyers, and some of the other technical "professions" start their educational process by teaching candidates an entirely new way of thinking. When I search for the exact word that I need to convey a thought in an argument, my non-lawyer friends roll their eyes and mutter "lawyers!"

While a systematic way of thinking may be necessary within the profession, it also tends to isolate and parochialize its members.

ceemac said...

I don't exactly remember why (it's been 20+ years)but didn't Bloom in "Closing of the American Mind" really have harsh words for university engineering faculties.

Was it that they didn't have a correct understanding what it meant to be part of a university?

M.R. Bowser said...

A good start might be to show them how to dress and behave like professionals. But seriously, folks . . .

In order to be a doctor or lawyer, the traditional 'professional' in this country, one must earn at minimum a graduate degree and pass governmental licensing requirements. This is in sharp contrast to those who could be descibed as an 'engineers,' some of whom do not even possess a four-year degree.
Further, engineers in this country seem to be less likely to go into practice for themselves than doctors and lawyers appear to do.

I would propose that the previous two reasons, and probably the first, are why engineers in this country might be viewed as high-functioning technicians instead of educated professionals.

These statements are based on my own personal observations, and I do not have facts or statistics to support them.