Deconstructing the difference between art and engineering in education

The following is my original response (with photos and links added) to this essay prompt :

The value of a liberal arts education is often debated. Some people will argue, “We need an education that focuses on training for jobs that are currently in demand.” Others will claim, “An education is more than that. It provides the foundation for a meaningful life and career.” With these positions in mind, write a letter to the editor of your hometown paper that stakes out and defends your position in this debate. Your letter may mention several arguments, but should focus on one that is derived from your college experiences, both in the classroom and beyond

I just recently sat down and discussed this question with the current Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin — Madison, but the scope was within the College of Engineering itself. It is much of the same question: should we prepare our engineers to be great, analytical thinkers ready for any future problem or train them in specific skills that will establish them as great workers straight out of college? I argued why not have two tracks — one for those who are trying to get jobs or start companies after undergrad and one for those who are looking to continue onto higher education and research. I was wrong, however, and it is in this error that the answer for what education should provide lies.

Education isn’t an either-or concept. It is not a choice between job-training and a foundation for a meaningful life and career. To think you can split it into one of two tracks is a naïve, reductionist argument. The goal of education is to allow the educated to get what they want, no matter what that may be.

This means that it should not be thought of as a choice, but rather a blur of the two. These debates do not have to be so polarized — art vs. engineering, discipline vs. creativity, practical skills vs. analytical abilities, thinking vs. doing — the list goes on. As an engineering student myself, I find art as a refreshing concept to analyze when the equations, formulae, and calculations seem relentless. And again, I do not believe the two, art and engineering, have to be seen as distinct. Former rocket scientist and current Dean of Engineering at University of South Florida, Dr. Robert Bishop ¹, argued the impact of the symbiosis between art and engineering:

It is about engineers and artists being one in the same. . . . If I want purple, I can paint red and blue adjacent, and maybe there will be some overlap, and if I look hard I may be able to detect purple, but what if I mix the red and the blue before I paint. Then I get the result that I truly am seeking.

Instead of forcing students down a discrete path, education should really be about finding the right mix of these two concepts — the right hue of purple. The solution for this is to create an individualized curriculum for every student, which is an obvious impossibility for a scale like forty thousand undergraduate students. That being said, there exist executable steps in that direction. Take a degree like Computer Science, for example. The University of Minnesota has fourteen distinct tracks within the Computer Science program that can be elected by each individual student; the University of Wisconsin has one. There isn’t a field that has been disrupted to the same degree that computer technology has, and with that the selectivity and precision of the programs must adapt to meet the desired futures of the students within them. One track is unacceptably low for the range of goals Computer Science students seek to accomplish.

If a Computer Science student wishes to be a web designer, he or she should not be forced to study artificial intelligence or compilers or automata theory. To accomplish this one must practice the craft day-by-day, week-by-week, semester by semester. This plan of action is entirely different from a student that wants to research machine learning algorithms or novel database systems. How can they be subjected to the same degree?

It is obvious now that education is more of a marketplace — where the customer decides. There is no way for any third party to decide what a “meaningful life” is for another. Instead of standing back at the fringe and examining what is best for the students, the voice of the students themselves should be integral in the decision of their curricula and futures. Allowing the students to have greater input is a way to scale the un-scalable.

After my Sophomore year I got an internship at a software company out in southern California paying over thirty dollars an hour, free housing, and beautiful weather. It was my first job, an absolute dream, and I felt completely undeserving. How did I get this job? It wasn’t my education — that much I know. At that point I had only taken a single programming class, the intro, and I had never done any sort of outside software project, yet I still was hired as a software development intern. During the interviews I kept repeating the story of an invention I developed alongside my friend and I am confident it was that story that got me the job. I knew ahead of time that I had to make up for my lack of educational knowledge with external experiences. I had to construct a path to what I wanted outside of education.

Thinking back on this experience makes me realize what is missing from the debate for or against a liberal arts education. My education was virtually a non-factor in finding a job, and I had to look outside of it to create a meaningful life for myself through my student organization and extra-curricular projects. If these are the only two sides of the debate . . . then something is missing. The opportunity for me to behave creatively does not exist in my education, but that need is not universal to all students. It is something I know I needed, but it’s not for everyone. Education cannot be binary, but rather a continuum. For this reason, curricula should be analyzed more so on flexibility — on how well it can adapt to appease a large, diverse set of life goals. Some students are after a job; others want to invent one, or freelance, or create art, or research, or just learn more about the world. There is only one element in common: want. This is what education should satiate.

Not everyone’s major is art, but all students are painters. Education just has to provide red and blue and let each student create a purple of their own.

Thank you, Robert Bishop, for the inspiration.

Thank you to each and every one of you for reading this essay. Please reach out and lets chat if you are interested: Mike Fix. Would love to hear from you guys.

¹ Robert Bishop: Art and Engineering — On the Interface of Creativity at the Edge of a Dream