A number of leading engineering organizations and educators in the United Sates have stressed the value of the liberal arts in educating innovative and socially responsible engineers. In addition, they argue that studies in the liberal arts would cultivate engineers’ sensitivities to different cultures and prepare them for a globalized economy. However, little research has examined the various ways in which engineers are educated in the liberal arts across cultural contexts. In this paper, we attempt to ignite a cross-cultural conversation by comparing the aims, strategies, and challenges of liberal arts education for engineers in China and the U.S.
Section one introduces recent educational reforms in China and the U.S. that seek to expand engineers’ learning in the liberal arts. Drawing on the educational literature in Chinese and English, we compare the respective purposes of liberal arts education for engineers envisioned by Chinese and American educators.
Section two examines some institutional, curricular, and instructional strategies through which liberal arts education for engineers is implemented in China and the U.S. We briefly discuss the programs of general education in two Chinese engineering universities and compare them with two American engineering programs located in liberal arts colleges.
Section three reflects upon the challenges faced by educators in China and the U.S. who seek to bring together engineering and the liberal arts. These challenges, in our analysis, reflect a more common instrumental attitude that dominates educational initiatives to enhance professional’s non-technical skills. Arguing that this instrumental view advances a narrowed understanding of the liberal arts, we suggest a broader approach, one that fully appreciates the critical and emancipatory spirits in the liberal arts. In the meantime, we note that the challenges to liberal arts education for engineers in the two nations illustrate the impacts of distinct governance structures and professional cultures. As we will demonstrate, educational reformers in each context have drawn from different intellectual resources and developed local strategies to meet these challenges. Therefore, we conclude that a global community of liberal educators for engineers, where participants share diverse intellectual traditions, educational visions and strategies, would inspire more productive answers to these challenges.
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