In his 2007 essay, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” Parker J. Palmer takes issue with “knowledge” devoid of social context as the product of education, such that graduates—professionals—are subservient to institutions rather than the interests of humanity.
‘The institutions in which we work too often threaten our professional values.’ —Parker J. Palmer
We have seen recent examples, close to home, of institutions eclipsing the needs of those that they supposedly serve. In his Engineering News Record Award of Excellence acceptance speech last week, Dr. Marc Edwards decried the engineering profession’s retreat from “loyalty to humankind and truth-seeking” to a state of technical superiority, not just without business ethics, but where members of the institutions actively collude to “hide malfeasance.” Dr. Edwards described his experience as the object of derision by colleagues when he stood up for public welfare, exposing environmental crimes by government engineers, placing himself at great personal, professional, and financial risk by doing so.
Dr. Edwards’ testimony suggests that the normative practice in the engineering profession is to go through the motions of serving the public, but to stop short of any finding that will implicate the institutions or hold them accountable for harm to the public. Professionals who violate the norms are silenced and punished.
‘If a new dark age is to be averted, we are going to need YOUR leadership to make that happen.’ — Dr. Marc Edwards
Dr. Edwards calls for a return to an “era of the heroic engineer” who will “burn bridges” to protect the public. Dr. Palmer, in 2007, provided a roadmap to begin that process, and the key is to nurture students’ emotional intelligence. In engineering, this means redirecting some of the empirical focus in engineering instruction to the set of knowledge, skills, and engineering practices that are loosely characterized as “art” in introductory engineering courses but without much explanation of how the art of engineering is learned and practiced.
I will take the liberty to interpret Dr. Palmer’s “five immodest proposals” for use in educating engineers:
- Question everything. The wisdom of taking nothing for granted is apparent if one reads state engineering board disciplinary reports, which are distributed to registered engineers with the expectation that they will learn from the mistakes of their peers.
- Reflect on learning. Metacognition is a higher order thinking skill which can be exercised in engineering classes. In practice, problems are not solved with a calculator, but through thoughtful reflection.
- Make reflection actionable. In the 1981 film Excalibur, Arthur’s act of drawing the sword plunges the kingdom into civil war, while Arthur takes refuge in the forest. When he awakens, Arthur asks Merlin what to do. Merlin prompts him with a few questions, and Arthur concludes that he must lead his army to the aid of his supporters, who are under attack. “That was easy!” quips Merlin.
- Cultivate community. It’s not always easy for a lone individual to know what to do. Teach students, through work in the classroom community, to learn from, contribute to, and rely on their groups, without engaging in “group think.” This can be done with practice at group work over time.
- Uproot hidden curricula. Model integrity and agency for change. This is the most challenging proposal. At the same time, it is a reason to embed ethics education into the curriculum. Take ethics education to the next level by making the community the classroom. Marc Edwards did this by taking his students to Flint, and you can view their poignant testimony here.
‘When the time came for someone to step in, he chose to do what is right and not what is easy.’— Anurag Mantha, Virginia Tech Flint Team
For more information:
Boorman, J. (Director). (1981). Excalibur [Video file]. Warner/Orion.
Edwards, M. (2017). How Engineers Can Reclaim Moral Authority. Remarks by Marc Edwards on receiving ENR’s top award April 13, 2017. Published at YouTube.com on April 14. 2017. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okYQkEyisNY
Palmer, P. (2007). A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited. Change, 39(6), 6-12. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/stable/4017826.pdf
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