An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.
– Benjamin Franklin
Printer, inventor, scientist, moralist, politician, humorist, and statesman, Benjamin Franklin was not only a Founding Father, but may be described as America’s Founding Engineer. Son of Boston, Franklin embodied the American ideal of the homo universalis, an ideal that seems all but lost in our modern age of hyper-specialization. The very success of engineering, paradoxically of course, tends to contribute to that loss. Engineers must undergo intense training in very specific disciplines in order to solve very specific problems with ever greater precision and continually design better and better processes and products. But can they afford to be mere specialists? The impact of engineering on society is intense and rapidly proliferating. On the other hand, society, itself continually growing more and more complex, influences engineering in profound ways. Given these facts, the ethical and political consequences of engineering and its technological fruits are more significant than ever. How can ever increasing specialization fit together with the ever increasing need to address deeply the ethical and political? Ours is not simply a new problem. For Franklin, as for his teacher, Francis Bacon two centuries before, genuine understanding requires knowledge of the moral and the political no less than the scientific.
The activity of engineering has been, from its beginning, only one element in the broader project of advancing human well-being. Be it chemicals and materials, computers, edifices, transportation, medicine, and even business and economics, engineers aim to create value for humanity by solving problems, and in solving them, engineers necessarily draw upon an implicit view of what will be beneficial. As such, the proper application of a truly thoughtful engineering presumes a comprehensive reflection not only of nature and how it can be manipulated, but also of the human good.
The Benjamin Franklin Project offers students an opportunity to consider thoughtfully and in a sustained manner how engineering is part of the human good. The approach is a careful consideration of the ethical, philosophical, political, and historical, all within the context of engineering. The goal is to understand engineering as it fits into the whole.
New courses, such as 10.01, Ethics for Engineers, 10.A21, Foundations of Principled Entrepreneurship, and 10.A22, Engineering, Science, and the Good Life are being offered as part of the program (Fall 2013). Our courses are designed specifically to present students with the ethical, political, philosophical, and historical foundations that form the basis of modern engineering thought and practice, as well as the fundamental alternatives to that way of thinking. In addition, the MIT Benjamin Franklin Project works to educate future engineering leaders, by incorporating strategies to broaden students’ education within existing core engineering courses with the goal of grasping the foundational ideas and aims of modern engineering. This broader base of knowledge is essential for enabling students to make novel connections between disciplines which can be truly disruptive.
The Benjamin Franklin Forum seeks to link these courses to a host of wider questions at the heart of a number of contemporary debates. To this end, we sponsor events for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, bringing together thought leaders, both scholars and practitioners, not only from the academy but also from the wider worlds of business, entrepreneurship, and policy. Setting up events that go beyond what has been traditionally considered to be within the purview of an engineering education, the Benjamin Franklin Project affords MIT students a unique opportunity to gain important insights from the knowledge and experience of leaders from a variety of areas. The aim of the Forum is to make a unique contribution in education, motivating the engineering leaders of tomorrow to impact the world in the greatest way possible.
The Benjamin Franklin Project is a new kind of incubator at MIT, drawing together men and women whose capacity for invention and design will generate a new kind of entrepreneurship. It treats without diffidence the tension in questions of material progress and social improvement, technique and ethics, freedom and justice, as well as considering their significance for deeper questions of human advancement and self-knowledge. In doing so, it seeks to foster engineers who may be worthy successors of Benjamin Franklin.
Also see >> E3 Engineering, Ethics, and Entrepreneurship