False Dichotomies of Numbers and Art

Mira Cooper

Mira Cooper,
Senior, Civil Engineering

Athens, OH 9 February 2017

There seems to be a very hurtful division in education. We’ve heard it in so many different forms that we don’t even notice it anymore. “Numbers” people vs. “Art” people. Left-brained vs. right-brained. Logic vs. emotion.

When I was young, I convinced myself that I would never understand artistic people, that I’d never understand those who put emotion before fact. When I was in high school, I hated my “soft” classes like English and History because I felt that engineers don’t need to know about literature or the humanities. I thought that to be successful, an engineer just needed to spend their time buried in Excel spreadsheets and complex equations (not that I’ve ever been particularly adept with either of those, but that’s a story for another day). I’d convinced myself that once I was surrounded by only engineers, no one would care about Macbeth or Boo Radley or the mad emperors of ancient Rome. As a result, I never really cultivated any hobbies or non-academic outlets to widen my worldview. Numbers were everything.

Recently, I was told by one of my bosses that I “don’t write like an engineer.” The implication being that engineers have a difficult time communicating and telling a proper narrative that makes readers want to hear what’s being said. However, I feel that that mindset refers to the stereotypical engineers of the past—the engineers that my high-school self idolized.

Today’s engineers are realizing that to truly function and make a difference in the world, we need to be well-rounded. We need to see more viewpoints than just our own. I never really thought much about how greatly the humanities affect engineering, but once I made friends with psychologists and anthropologists, and they encouraged me to start doing my own research, a whole new world opened up.

I started seeing that the average person (you know, the people whose lives we aim to improve) doesn’t want to read a report filled with data presented in Times New Roman font. If that’s the way all engineering reports are being written, we may as well give up now because no one will be reading them.

People want to read something with a hook, they respond well to stories. I found that it is in fact possible to report logistic information in a way that doesn’t put people to sleep—crazy, right? I guess that’s why I “don’t write like an engineer.”

Now, in my first sentence I brought in that this is a division in education. I haven’t talked much about it yet, but I hope that you as a reader can tell where I’m going with this. I didn’t learn any of this in class. Not in high school, not even in college. I learned this through my interactions with other people outside of the engineering world. I learned this by reading those books that I groaned about in high school.

It may seem counterintuitive at first, but engineers need that exposure to literature to learn to write like real people, not computers. We need to learn our life lessons from fictional characters and their authors. We need to learn how to tell our story, even if that story is all data.

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