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Engineers: Problem-Solvers Or Creative Artists?

Because so much of an engineering student’s time is spent solving problems, it’s easy to get into the habit of thinking that solving problems is all engineers do.

One aspect of engineering that technical courses don’t address very well is the attitude that an engineer should bring to the task at hand. Because so much of an engineering student’s time is spent solving problems, it’s easy to get into the habit of thinking that solving problems is all engineers do. But as the mystery writer Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) said in her book The Mind of the Maker, life isn’t a series of problems to be solved, like the whodunits she was famous for writing. Instead, the better approach is to realize that life in all its complexity and ramifications can’t simply be “solved,” except for certain narrowly defined specific cases. Life should be viewed as the raw material for a work of art, and the more creatively we approach life’s issues and difficulties and work within the limitations we are given, the better off we will be.

The Mind of the Maker is an extended comparison between, believe it or not, the creative process and the Christian religious doctrine of the Trinity. I will leave that aspect of it for another time, and concentrate instead on the criticism she makes near the end of the book about a worrisome trend that, as she wrote in 1941, was already dominating the way people thought about social and economic ills.  

The mentality she decries is to view large, complicated issues as though they were numbered items at the end of an engineering textbook chapter: namely, problems that with sufficient technical effort and scientific expertise can be solved in a way that clears them up entirely. If anything, this way of thinking has only become more common in the seven decades or so that have elapsed since she criticized it. The “problem-solution” way of thinking has become ingrained in our thought processes so thoroughly that many politicians, economists, doctors, lawyers, and even theologians largely accept it without question. If all these folks think this way, why not engineers?  

She answers this question by listing four ways that the kinds of solvable problems she set up in her detective fiction are different from most problems (including engineering problems) that we face in real life. These are, briefly, (1) there is always a solution to the detective-story problem, (2) when the murder mystery is solved, there’s no doubt or loose ends left over, (3) the detective problem is solved within the same framework of ideas that the writer sets out at the beginning, and (4) every detective story has an end. Engineering students can see the strong family resemblance that mystery-story problems bear to engineering-text problems: the same four features are true of both.

Writers of both detective fiction and engineering textbooks have to pose problems in these terms. Neither students nor readers of detective fiction will put up with problems that can’t be solved, leave a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions, require an unexpected type of knowledge to solve, or which go on literally forever. But Sayers’ point is that the problems we deal with in real life can do any or all of these things.  

So what good is it to learn how to solve problems? A lot of good, it turns out. As engineering involves a wider variety of disciplines, the technical knowledge that engineers of various stripes acquire in their undergraduate education proves either insufficient for many tasks, or gets outmoded pretty quickly. What doesn’t get outmoded, and what makes engineers increasingly valuable in the rapidly changing world of technological society, is the ability to solve problems that are more complex, more extended, and less well defined than the textbook (or mystery-novel) variety. That’s why a substantial number of engineering graduates go on to work in fields as diverse as medical research, economics, or law: all professional disciplines need people who can solve problems, but they also need people with a wide enough vision to realize that simple-minded “turn-the-crank” solutions can only take you so far.

Sayers’ example of how a creative artist works within the limitations of a medium has lessons for engineers as well. As a classic example, she considers Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In writing one of his most profound dramas, Shakespeare did not solve a problem, except in the limited sense of having something to attract a season’s patrons of the Globe Theater. He worked within the grand but fixed framework of human nature to explore perpetual issues of loyalty, courage, decision-making, and other matters of the heart and mind that continue to engage audiences today. Was the world any closer to solving these types of problems after Shakespeare wrote his plays? Not in the sense that just a few more years added to Shakespeare’s life would have made any of them go away. But in accepting human nature as it was and portraying it in a timeless way, Shakespeare helped everyone who can read and appreciate his plays to understand life a little better, I think. And understanding is necessary for wisdom.

Engineers rarely think of their activities as being creative, in the same sense that a Shakespeare or a Steven Spielberg is creative. No one but God is truly creative: even the most creative of artists works with the social, historical, and intellectual material at hand. But if we engineers learn to approach real-life problems, not with the mindset of finding “the” unique, cut-and-dried solution, but with the hope of learning about the limitations within which we work, and the human meanings of what we plan to do, perhaps the world will take a more enlightened view of our profession. And we will leave the world, as we eventually must, having made it a better place.

Karl Stephan has worked in the industry as a consulting engineer. He currently teaches college-level engineering courses at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.