Delta-columnist Bob van Vliet.
Bob van Vliet: "Instead of reflecting on democratic, public values and the role of technology in our lives, the focus is on self-reflection" (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Teaching students to reflect is a good initiative, but it is a different kind of reflection than what Bob van Vliet hoped for. He has mixed feelings.

Lees in het Nederlands

First, some housekeeping. A couple of months ago I wrote about ‘ungrading’. I received a surprising amount of responses to that. Several people told me that they were looking forward to the column in which I would discuss how this had worked out in practice. That reflection turned into a somewhat longer article rather than a column. Read it here. But talking about reflection, that brings me to my real subject for this month.

How it is in other faculties I do not know, but at mine there was a strong push this year for the idea of ‘the reflective engineer’. Our students should not only learn to calculate and work with their hands, but also learn to reflect on their skills, interests, and habits.

I have mixed feelings about this initiative.

A lot of it is good and needed. Any education worth its name should include coming to know yourself. And cooperating, planning, and arguing are essential skills for engineers. However much some people want to bury themselves in models, maths, or mechanisms, in the end technology is always something that you develop with and for other people.

That said, when I first heard the term ‘reflective engineer’, I thought of completely different things. I thought of historic, societal and ideological awareness. Of reflecting on questions like: What vision of humanity is this system is built on? Who is empowered by our wonderful new machine, and whose power does it diminish? How do we feel about the concentration of power that often goes hand in hand with technological ‘progress’? Why is it that the ‘societal impact’ of well-meaning, capable engineers has so often turned out to be major damage to the world? Is there perhaps something about the way our society is organised or the way in which our work is financed that leads to this? What can we do about that?

‘What society asks for’ quickly becomes ‘what industry asks for’

Instead of reflecting on democratic, public values and the role of technology in our lives, the focus is on self-reflection. On the individual. In practice it is easy for that focus to become even more narrow – on the individual market value of our alumni, on their qualities as an employee. ‘What society asks for’ quickly becomes ‘what industry asks for.’

In addition, I increasingly see ‘the reflective engineer’ in the form of a kind of personality test with eight ‘engineering roles’ – an extremely limited mindset. These roles are from a report (PDF) published by the four partner universities of technology. Or rather, it seems to be mostly written by a commercial agency and is full of semi-profound neoliberal bullshit. It makes far reaching claims about what the future will be like – note, the future, singular – without any argumentation about whether and why this is the future that we should want.

Since its birth, engineering has been inextricably linked to serving the powers that be – from city states to colonial powers to multinationals. Many TU Delft alumni go to work at large companies where, in the end, what matters is shareholder value – regardless of all the pretty words about ‘impact for a better society’. Let’s free reflection on that from the limited context of stand-alone ethics courses and build it systematically into our education system.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via