Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1827:
FLORMAN AT SMITH COLLEGE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, Samuel Florman at Smith College. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Samuel Florman's book Blaming Technology came out some time ago, in 1981. Florman is a noted engineer and writer. In the book, he tells about joining a seminar at Smith College on the role of technology in modern society. And I weigh his experience with the women at Smith, against our world, a quarter of a century later.

He wrote of sipping sherry with these bright young upper-crust women. They were, he said, "not vapid in the way of country gentry. Far from it. They were alert and sensible, well-trained in mathematics and the sciences." These women were superbly equipped to become important players in the field of engineering.

But he also saw that it would be a hopeless cause to draw these women into engineering. They weren't about to take engineering seriously. He explained that conviction by telling a story about the great scholar, public servant, and US President, Herbert Hoover. Hoover became acquainted with a lady on a voyage across the Atlantic. Late in the trip, he mentioned that he was a mining engineer. "Why," said the lady, "I thought you were a gentleman."

However, Florman was not so simplistic as to think the Smith students' lack of interest in engineering was simple snobbery. It dawned on him that their real interest lay in gaining their own access to the some of the power controlled by a male establishment. They did not see engineering as a career that would make them powerful.

The women's movement, he opined, was "more concerned about battering on closed doors than [with] walking through those that are open." And bright women truly were battering down the walls that'd once limited their access to law, medicine, and business.

So where has all this led? Smith College has come to recognize the wisdom of walking through the door already open. It now offers a degree in engineering science -- with a web page showing young women in hard hats smiling at the camera. Smith also does something quite rare. It offers its students a minor in engineering as well -- an opportunity to better complete a liberal arts education.

Yet the Smith program is a small one. Indeed, women make up only twenty percent of engineering students across the US, even today. In law schools, on the other hand, that number has reached parity at around fifty percent.

And I go back to Florman's not-so-outdated analysis. He finishes with a stinging sentence. He says that the dream of equality "will never be realized as long as women would rather supervise the world than help build it." I like that, not so much as it applies to women, but as it applies to us all.

"Leadership" has become the new buzzword -- a few more years of overuse and we'll all be shrinking from it. Maybe then we'll catch on to the fact (as Smith College has) that the world truly is built from the bottom up -- that being part of that creative under-world is how any of us carve our presence upon history.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


S. C. Florman, Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981. Chapter 11.

UH engineering student
Electrical Engineering Student Divya Gangumalla with a Fluorescence microscope in the UH Environmental Engineering lab. (photo by Jeff Shaw.)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.