June 26, 2022
An increasing number of state legislatures within the United States are considering and passing legislation aimed at restricting the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts” at the pre-college level. Even more worrisome, some states are now expanding these restrictions to the collegiate level[i]. We find these efforts to be concerning because they may degrade the quality of engineering and engineering technology education.
Engineers must be concerned not with developing and using technologies, but it is our ethical[ii] imperative to also consider the social, economic, and political contexts and impacts of those technologies on the people who use them and on wider societies[iii]. This concern is embodied in the concept of “macro-ethics” as put forward by ASEE Fellow Joe Herkert and championed by William A. Wulf, former president of the National Academy of Engineering. The concept holds that engineers must act such that not only their individual professional behavior is ethical, but also the collective work they engage in as a profession in service to society is ethical as well[iv].
Engineers increasingly question whether it is ethical to design systems that ignore or disadvantage significant portions of the population – for example, road routings that isolate or bisect economically disadvantaged neighborhoods[v], seat belts that do not consider the height and weight of the average woman[vi], automatic faucets that do not work well for persons with darker skin[vii], artificial intelligence systems designed to assume a higher degree of criminality among underserved ethnic communities[viii], or student recruitment software that allows for selecting only White students[ix]. These examples are drawn from actual past practices that reflect ignorance and antipathy toward various segments of our population.
In order to avoid such errors in the future, it is essential that faculty and students be able to openly discuss the context of how these errors came to be and what steps can be taken in the future to avoid their recurrence. This necessitates discussions of the nation’s historical treatment of various populations and how engineered systems have reflected or facilitated this treatment. Prohibiting such discussions in a misguided attempt to prevent “discomfort” among engineering students does a disservice to the students and to the public they hope to serve.
[ii] https://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics and https://order-of-the-engineer.org/about-the-order/obligation/
[iii] See for example Section 14 on pages 42-43 of https://www.nspe.org/sites/default/files/resources/nspe-body-of-knowledge.pd f
[iv] https://www.nae.edu/File.aspx?id=7378&v=f37740e0 See page 3.