My Sentiments (Almost) Exactly

Mr. Forster countered my argument with . . . my argument? And it’s proving to be a productive agreement.

“Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them—how Plato would have every infant ‘a bastard nursed in a bureau’, and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry—we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.” –C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

Greg Forster of the Kern Foundation recently responded to my last post (“Why No One Wants to be an Engineer”) with this forceful rebuttal. In a nutshell, he argues that “God loves engineering. When he made the human race, he declared one and only one explicit purpose for human life: to have a transformative impact on the environment. (Well, okay, and to reproduce.)” Strangely enough, I whole-heartedly concur. Furthermore, I think Mr. Forster’s reading of Genesis 1-2 and his “Theology of Work 101” are spot on. The two articles I previously wrote on the nature of work (Work, I and Work, II), which Mr. Forster referenced and praised, were a fleshing out of these very ideas.

So, given our high level of agreement, why the rebuttal? I think the answer lies in two places, one interesting and one not so interesting. First, the not-so-interesting reason for his response—Mr. Forster misread my essay, as is evident from his comment regarding it: “the original article that I linked to is definitely objecting to ‘engineering itself per se.’” One of Mr. Forster’s perceptive readers rightly challenged him on this, “Engineering, per se, may well be “very good,” but engineering as we practice it may be doing us tremendous harm. As I read it, Mr. Yarbrough is helpfully suggesting that there is a difference between the two.”

Whether my position agreeing with Mr. Forster is obvious from my writing (and I think it is), there is a substantive disagreement between us. The inspiration for my post was, in part, the third chapter of C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. (It was on the reading list for one of my government courses at university, though I wish I could say it was required reading for my “Engineering Ethics” class, but more on that previously.) Lewis is highly critical of the break-nature-in-half-and-recast-her-according-to-our-will-as-rapidly-and-efficiently-as-possible school that dominated the sciences of his day. I am too. I think God has given us the task of reconciling nature with His blueprint for it (thereby setting it free) and that this inclination to care for the physical world is part and parcel of man’s nature. As a result, modern engineering is off-putting for college students in so far as they are human, whether they realize it or not.

Mr. Forster disagrees.

“On that reading, [Mr. Yarbrough’s] argument boils down to the assertion that in our time, the profession of engineering has been significantly *more* morally disordered than the other professions that potential engineers are choosing to go into instead . . . . I think Lewis very badly overstated the extent to which science is disordered in modernity. But even Lewis didn’t suggest that science was so much *more* disordered than other professions that it would have difficulty attracting young people compared with such paradigmatic exemplars of virtue as Wall Street.”

To begin, I think modern engineering is not, by degrees, more morally confused than other professions, but that it’s morally confused in a way that most other profession aren’t, being utterly preoccupied with the material. For whatever reason (and I’d be interested to hear Mr. Forster’s thoughts on this), other disciplines can’t ignore the unseen as the standard engineering curriculum does (though not for lack of trying, e.g. materialism in philosophy). Imagine the fine arts without Sophocles’ Antigone or Handel’s Messiah, political science without Aquinas’s Summa, medicine without the Hippocratic Oath, mathematics without Pythagoras, or even economics without Marx.

These disciplines tend to be morally confused in so far as they inflate one good to the neglect of others. Engineering seems to me a different animal; somewhere along the way it abandoned the moral question and become nothing more than technical training, which as Lewis argues, means appetite becomes king. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a good number of my engineering classmates were eager to spend hours with their gaming systems every weekend.) The extremely powerful techniques passed on to the modern engineer are divorced from any exterior guiding principles. And the eye of man is never satisfied.

The following passage from Lewis laments the loss of a wisdom that was nowhere to be found in my education as an engineer.

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”

Mr. Forster asks, “Does Yarbrough think cities just grow up out of the ground?” While he may have had a different purpose for his question, I think Mr. Forster is right to highlight the origin of the city as having great import for correctly understanding man and his work. My thoughts are that perhaps Cain built the first city, and God chose that work as a model for the New Jerusalem. As an engineer I am highly encouraged that what might be considered a very physical (or at least seemingly unspiritual) work was used as the basic design for the coming kingdom. It reminds me that the material in front of me is not the whole story, that something of it’s reality is yet unknown to me. And it gives me pause to thank God for the beneficent obstinacy of real college students.


  • […] his gracious reply to what was, I admit, a provocatively worded critique of his post on engineering in modernity, Jace […]

  • […] his friendly reply to what was, we admit, a provocatively worded critique of his post on engineering in modernity, […]

  • […] In his latest response to my thoughts about modern engineering, Greg Forster’s main allegation is that I’ve fallen into a Platonic disdain for the material world. He also suspects me of thinking that the liberal arts are inherently more humane than the hard sciences. “I’d ask Yarbrough to consider whether he hasn’t overreacted against what he sees as inordinate veneration of the material by falling into an inordinate denigration of the material, as evidenced by his first post arguing that students’ “humanity” will tend to lead them away from the material professions, and also in the romanticized depiction of the humanities and social sciences in his second post.” […]

  • […] Read Jace’s response to Greg Forster here. […]