Document Type

Conference Paper


Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence

Publication Details

Presented at 44th SEFI Conference, 12-15 September 2016, Tampere, Finland


Messe agus Pangur Bán, cechtar nathar fria shaindán: bíth a menmasam fri seilgg, mu menma céin im shaincheirdd.

I and Pangur Bán, my cat 'Tis a like task we are at; Hunting mice is his delight Hunting words I sit all night.

The poem Pangur Bán [1] was written by an unknown Irish monk in the Benedictine Abbey of Reichenau, in southern Germany in the ninth century. The Abbey, founded in 724 by Saint Pirim, was a centre of learning in Europe for many centuries, reaching its apex under Abbot Berno of Reichenau (1008–48). The Christian church was the sole focus of education in the first millennium, with centres of learning developing around monasteries (e.g. Cluain Mhic Nóis in 546 [2]). The Christian religion, based on Hebrew and Greek documents translated into Latin, required scholarship; at the very least, clergy had to be able to read and write Latin. This was less a problem in Italy, France and other countries with a Latin derived language, but was quite challenging for others. The medieval monastic school was quite diverse, with scholars from all over Europe attending the most prestigious. This was greatly facilitated by the universal use of Latin as a lingua franca. Both monasteries and convents had schools, allowing women an equal, albeit separate, scholarly status. The German Benedictine Abbess, Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 17 September 1179), is one such example, writing sublime hymns, and producing treatises on such diverse topics as theology, medicine and botany. Hildegard’s family were minor nobility, one flaw of the medieval system from the modern point-of-view; men and women could be educated, but only if they were wealthy. [3] Some of these monastic schools, such as Paris (1150), developed into universities in the late middle ages, but most of Europe’s early universities were secular counterparts to the guild system of craft education (e.g. Bologna (1088) and Oxford (1167)). They were seen as a separate community of teachers and students, universitas magistrorum et scholarium, from which is derived the English word university. Unfortunately, these secular universities were men only, and would remain so until the late 19th century. The University of Bologna made its reputation from the teaching of Roman law; all early universities concentrated on a classical education, studying the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and the literature of Euripedes and Virgil. Even into the 20th Century, many traditional universities prided themselves on the classics, and either ignored or downplayed newer disciplines, especially the sciences. One consequence of this in the late 19th Century was the development of dedicated technical colleges outside the traditional university system. In France, in 1794, the École polytechnique was founded by Monge to achieve the highest standards in Science and Engineering. In Dublin, a similar institution, the Royal College of Science, was established in 1867. In 1926 it was absorbed by University College Dublin (UCD), becoming the faculty of Science and Engineering. Over the past millennium, most third level education has been rooted in the humanities, specifically in the Greco-Roman tradition. Engineering education was confined to the military and to craft guilds. The Romans pioneered the military use of engineering, with cohorts of engineers to build roads and bridges to move the legions around quickly, and weapons engineers to build siege machines. In medieval times, craft guilds controlled most trades, with young men who wished to become craftsmen having to pay to do an apprenticeship, followed by a number of years as journeymen. To join the guild, the journeyman had to pay a sum of money to the guild, and then produce a masterpiece, before the guild’s master craftsmen elected them as full members. Henry Ford once said, ‘History is bunk’, going on to muse that it really does not matter how many times the Ancient Greeks flew kites. [4] Does it matter what type of education Europe has had over the past millennium? What relevance does it have today that most of that education was rooted in the classics? Why should we care that Engineering developed outside the mainstream universities? It matters because what happened in the past conditions the present. In particular, the fact that women’s education was confined to the humanities matters today, because there is no tradition of women engineers. Men are part of a tradition going back to the ingenious (Latin ingeniator, from which the word engineer derives) men who built roads, bridges and siege machines for the Roman legions; women are not. Even when engineering became a part of university life, it retained much of its origins 44th SEFI Conference, 12-15 September 2016, Tampere, Finland in the apprentice system of guild education, specifically time in the workshop. Today, there are many engineering courses where one does not have to spend hours in workshops learning how to use a lathe, or weld mild steel, but the perception is otherwise. Oner Yurtseven of Purdue [5] makes this point in his 2002 paper, How Does the Image of Engineering Affect Student Recruitment and Retention? A Perspective from the USA: “As engineers, we see ourselves as bright, articulate, honest, responsible, conscientious and capable. There will not be any argument against this from an engineer of course. The US public version of our image as engineers is not, however, this complimentary. We are seen as predominantly male, too bright for our own good, honest to a fault, non communicative, dull, and loners.” A second, vital point is relevant from the Middle Ages in Europe: the concentration of education amongst a tiny, clerical elite was too restrictive, and Europe stagnated for a thousand years, until the stimulus of the Renaissance motivated 14th Century Italy. We cannot afford stagnation today simply because our Engineering education is too narrow and confined, in the main, to only section of society.


Included in

Engineering Commons