Boston University and the Societal Engineers

Like most parents of high school graduates at this time of year, I am cleaning up the vast array of promotional materials sent by colleges and universities now that my daughter has committed to the school of her choice. My daughter is a catch academically—a high-achiever who wants to pursue a career in science or engineering—so it was not a surprise that several upper-tier schools courted her with scholarships and generous aid packages.

Boston University was no exception. The school clearly spared no expense on its brochures, which featured prominent lettering, graphics, and striking colors. The tag line for the school of engineering brochure, “Creating The Societal Engineer,” appears in big white letters. But for someone like me with a background in history and the humanities, this phrase was a bit jarring. What exactly did they mean by “societal engineer”? I wanted to know more.

BU hired Kenneth R. Lutchen as dean of the engineering school in 2006. He introduced the concept of “societal engineering” two years later and the university trademarked the term in 2012. The engineering department has grown and prospered under his leadership. During his tenure, Lutchen has formed partnerships with big names such as General Electric, Philips, AT&T, Procter and Gamble, Accenture, and others, with the goal of facilitating research and fostering talent and, more broadly, serving humanity.

Boston’s brochure touts a program where Boston’s engineering students work closely with rural doctors and hospitals to devise medical equipment that can be readily accessed to train personnel, can withstand harsh climates, and, most importantly, can be easily repaired. There can be no question that a university so focused on positive outcomes for people is engaged in something laudable and praiseworthy. Using technology to advance civilization, extend human lifespans, and raise people’s standards of living are all good things.

But the term “societal engineering” immediately evokes an older, more sinister term: social engineering. Born of good intentions over a century ago, social engineering also offered technological advances destined to push humanity forward by solving all its problems. Instead, it left behind it a legacy of misery, bloodshed, and death. Social reformer Pierre Guillaume Frédéric le Play is credited with coining the term in 1872 at France’s École des Mines, where he was a professor and engineer-in-chief. Le Play was also a pioneer in sociology and his efforts to apply rigorous scientific methods to the study of French family dynamics have left a lasting legacy in the field. William H. Tolman, an American scientist, mechanical engineer, and industrialist, published Social Engineering in 1909. The book focused on how American industrialists at the time tried to “promote better relations between capital and labor.” The idea was that just as businesses needed traditional engineers to solve technical challenges, they also needed social engineers to help solve social or human problems. The subsequent popularity of the idea helped foment the belief that any project subscribing to that label was necessarily in the service of some humanitarian good.

But it quickly became clear that “social engineering” had no limiting principle. In its most malignant form, social engineering gave birth to the “new Soviet Man,” China’s “Great Leap Forward,” and the “Cultural Revolution.” Indeed, it left more than 100 million corpses in its wake. Early 20th century social engineering efforts led to the promotion and implementation of the eugenics movement, which in the United States alone led to some 60,000 forced sterilizations of women government social workers deemed mentally or socially “unfit.” Eugenics became the lodestar of social engineering. Horrific medical experiments, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, were justified on the grounds of bettering society at the expense of people supposedly “lacking in social value.”

Is Lutchen’s “societal engineer” a new spin on that older, discredited idea? Lutchen did not respond to my several requests for clarification. But his public record is enough to make one wonder.

Although Lutchens formally introduced “societal engineering” into BU’s curriculum and promotional literature a decade ago, Merriam-Webster dates the first use of the adverb “societal” to 1890, about the same time “social engineering” began as a movement. Webster’s also provides a clue as to why Lutchen’s letter swap is significant. When the adjective “social” is changed to an adverb “societal,” it modifies the noun “engineering” to suggest calculated action and direction. Understanding this particular conjunction and the moral cynosure it became during the Progressive Era might have been useful information for Lutchen to have as he was refining his vision for the school, its students, and their respective roles in the world.

In an essay published in the Fall 2011 edition of Bostonia, the university’s alumni magazine, Lutchen explained how he came around to the “societal engineering” concept. “I looked around and tried to conceptualize the goals of an undergraduate education in engineering,” he wrote. “How did an education in engineering map into the greater context of society?” Luchen’s question is a good one. His answer leaves much to be desired, however: “I recognized that undergraduate education must prepare people for success, where success was an ambition to impact society. It dawned on me that we have the potential to transform the goals and experience of engineering education at the undergraduate level.” Which sounds an awful lot like social engineering.

“You can create somebody with the most powerful foundation possible for orchestrating people from all forms of disciplines so that you can move an organization and society forward to improve our quality of life,” Lutchen explained in a 2013 video. He listed the main attributes of Boston University’s program as fostering “system-level thinking” not only in technological innovation but also in how product ideas are put into mass production “specific to their region and culture.” The attributes of the societal engineer, as he sees them, are a global awareness, a sense to incorporate public policy, and “social consciousness”—a highly elastic concept open to all manner of mischief.

It’s troubling to note where Lutchen seems to be steering his program. The engineer apparently has departed the world of concrete and steel and entered the realm of dangerous abstraction. Writing in the Spring 2019 issue of ENG, Boston University’s engineering school magazine, Lutchen makes the case not just for the societal engineer but rather for the “societal citizen.”

“We need higher education in general to commit to Creating the Societal Citizen,” he writes. He wonders “if people who have not been exposed to the scientific method are considerably more likely to claim climate change is a hoax or that childhood vaccinations are dangerous. They do this despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Why? Perhaps they want to believe this and/or there are politicians and those with cynical business self-interests (who also rarely have STEM backgrounds) who push this narrative.” He goes further, suggesting that certain politicians and businessmen have nefarious goals. “I suspect that an individual who does not understand the scientific method or quantitative analysis can more easily dismiss compelling data in favor of personal opinion.” Implicit in these comments is the ridiculous suggestion that people with STEM backgrounds would never be swayed by political ideology, donor pressure, or personal prejudice.

Social engineering promotes the unspoken ethical tautology that if a thing can be seen from one point of view to serve the common good, it is ipso facto good. Lutchen in his letter to accepted students this year defines his societal engineer as one “who has the confidence, capacity, and passions to work with people from all disciplines, cultures, governments and organizations to solve society’s greatest challenges and improve people’s quality of life.”

A lofty goal, but it exposes the real problem: When one thinks he has this power, he gives himself moral carte blanche to create the perfect society, whether the projects he is advancing actually are in the best interests of the masses or not. Moreover, who decides? And what gives them the right to decide what’s in the best interest of society? STEM education?

Social engineering, and Lutchen’s version “societal engineering” both gloss over vital moral distinctions. Certain individual anomalies, in certain circumstances, may not be of particular benefit to society. A social engineer would say they should be swept away or thrown out like metal filings or used petri dishes. To dissent from an idea that society’s engineers have concluded serves the public good is to be out of step, out of touch, and subversive. Who can disagree with what “science” says? Teaching students the scientific method and qualitative analysis will not be enough to stop people from making wrong or corrupt decisions.

Why is there no recognition of the catastrophic impact social engineering has had on humanity in history? As the moral impetus for technological development and progress, social engineering requires technical initiatives and programs to be sold to the public as part of a social good. But progressives, under the auspices of social betterment, have exploited, maimed, and murdered people by the hundreds of millions. If technology is guided primarily by whatever people like Lutchen may deem “socially worthy,” what exactly is guiding it? Is it respect for the individual? Or, might we infer as the name suggests, that the individual is subordinate to the “societal” good?

Lutchen’s program is entering is entering its 11th year. The brochures tout great humanitarian achievements by his students, such Andrew Schiff’s ENG’ 12 patch for congenital heart defects made from a newborn’s own cells, are groundbreaking and laudable. What makes that good is that someone’s baby is saved, and that human potential for good is carried forward. A societal directive that is guided only by the scientific method can’t do that. For that matter, neither can a STEM degree or any college degree promoting social allegiance to “system-level thinking” over individual human worth. Lutchen’s statements suggest he denigrates the views of people who disagree with his view of society.

Reorienting higher education to make “societal citizens” who have “internalized the scientific method” and can “assess objectively” the challenges that threaten our quality of life only sounds laudable in a completely ahistorical context. To assert, however, that failure to adopt such a program means “Nothing short of the Earth itself may be at stake” is propaganda, pure and simple. We are not cogs in a “societal engineer’s” machine.

Photo Credit: iStock/Getty Images

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.