Monday, September 09, 2013

Wisdom Literature for 21st-century Engineers


The other day I received a copy of a book written by a retired engineering professor and academic administrator named Lyle Feisel.  Prof. Feisel has found plenty of good works to do in his retirement, one of which was to write a column for The Bent, the magazine of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society.  He has collected these columns in a book with the title Lyle's Laws:  Reflections on Ethics, Engineering, and Everything Else. University administrators as a group are not noted for their literary brilliance or scintillating wit, and I will admit I opened the book with some trepidation.  But even after I had read (and enjoyed) it, it took me a while to figure out what category of literature it was. 

It's not an ethics textbook, by any means.  There are no homework problems, and each of its forty or so chapters is only a few pages long, dealing with a separate topic introduced by the "law" in question:  a single word or phrase followed by a brief aphorism.  Even though the chapters are independent, a particular view of the world emerges from the whole as you read.  That doesn't mean it's a work of philosophy, either—Prof. Feisel uses no fancy philosophical vocabulary, and makes no pretense of adhering to any particular philosophical or religious system. 

Finally it struck me what the book was:  it's a work of wisdom literature for 21st-century engineers. 

Wisdom literature is what scholars call the literary genre represented by the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible.  These books are collections of short, informal words of advice, without much in the way of overall organization or pattern, but rich with anecdotes, stories with a moral, and observations on human nature.  So is Lyle's Laws. 

Wisdom is not a word that gets a lot of use these days.  I once heard it defined as the ability to apply knowledge effectively, and that covers not only what engineers should do but what anyone with specialized knowledge has an obligation to do.  Many, if not most, of Lyle's Laws are not original.  For instance, No. 25, "Possibility:  If it can happen, it will happen" derives from that principle known to all working engineers, Murphy's Law ("If anything can go wrong, it will.").  But Feisel's form of the law allows for unexpected good things to happen as well, though you shouldn't count on them happening as a part of your design!  I heard a version of another law—"Discoverability:  Don't record anything you don't want the whole world to see"—from an older engineering professor in the 1990s, who told me he always warned his students not to write down anything that you wouldn't mind seeing reprinted on the front page of the New York Times.  But that's what wisdom consists of:  basic truths about human nature and human relations that are often learned by experience and passed on from generation to generation.  As C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Abolition of Man, it's as hard to devise a truly original moral principle as it is to come up with a new primary color besides red, blue, and green. 

But if there is moral medicine in Lyle's Laws, it is covered with a pleasant and engaging outer coating of war stories (some of them literally that:  the author is a Navy veteran), professional and personal tales that introduce many of the chapters, and a tone that is never preachy or didactic.  Sometimes you read a book and wish you could meet the author afterwards, and this is that kind of a book. 

This is true despite the fact that I found myself mentally squirming after reading a few of the chapters, notably the one entitled "Comfort:  Beware the cozy comfort zone."  Somewhere in the book I came across the question, "What do you know how to do now that you didn't know how to do a year ago?"  That prompted me to think about how much of what I do is simply more of the same, and how much is something I don't know how to do, but want to learn, even at the cost of some mental anguish and frustration.  This is an especially good question for tenured professors, who sometimes appear to the outside world to be entitled to coast for the rest of their lives.  Fortunately, I was able to come up with a few things I've learned in the past year, anyway, and I hope to add to the list as time goes on. 

Who should read this book?  I think there's a difference between who should read it and who will read it.  I would like every undergraduate engineering student in the English-speaking world to read the book (and so would Prof. Feisel, obviously).  If they did, and if they took the advice in the book to heart, they could avoid a lot of the errors, screwups, and cases of bad judgment that sometimes make the lives of young engineers as interesting as they are.  But that is a dream impossible of realization, short of some rich guy taking the notion to send free copies to all engineering schools.  I suspect that many of the people who will read the book are those of us in the late summer and fall of our careers, who can relate to the historical situations that Prof. Feisel alludes to and resonate with the truths he elucidates from his stories and experiences.  But the book would also serve as a good recommended read for engineering ethics courses, and I hope it will be used that way.

In my technical lectures, I occasionally mention a historical anecdote in connection with my technical topic of the day, and I have learned that a little of such material goes a long way.  Most young people, at least most young engineering students, are not that interested in history.  The spirit of our age is inherently forward-looking and views history as something to be overcome and surpassed, not something to learn from.  And for the most part, that is a good thing.  Too much regard for the past keeps you from moving into the future as fast as the next guy, as I have learned from my own experience.  But the human side of engineering is a function of human nature, which doesn't change.  And Lyle's Laws is one of the most easily read, and yet rewarding, works on human nature and engineering that I have come across in years.

Sources:  Lyle's Laws:  Reflections on Ethics, Engineering, and Everything Else, by Lyle D. Feisel, was published in 2013 by Brooklyn River Press, New York.

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