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Social Responsibility in French Engineering Education: A Historical and Sociological Analysis

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In France, some institutions seem to call for the engineer’s sense of social responsibility. However, this call is scarcely heard. Still, engineering students have been given the opportunity to gain a general education through courses in literature, law, economics, since the nineteenth century. But, such courses have long been offered only in the top ranked engineering schools. In this paper, we intend to show that the wish to increase engineering students’ social responsibility is an old concern. We also aim at highlighting some macro social factors which shaped the answer to the call for social responsibility in the French engineering “Grandes Ecoles”. In the first part, we provide an overview of the scarce attention given to the engineering curriculum in the scholarly literature in France. In the second part, we analyse one century of discourses about the definition of the “complete engineer” and the consequent role of non technical education. In the third part, we focus on the characteristics of the corpus which has been institutionalized. Our main finding is that despite the many changes which occurred in engineering education during one century, the “other formation” remains grounded on a non academic “way of knowing”, and aims at increasing the reputation of the schools, more than enhancing engineering students’ social awareness.

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  1. Since 1934, a law protects the title of graduate engineer in France through an accreditation process of the French engineering schools, performed by the CTI. Since 1996 the CTI is conducting regular audits in engineering education institutions, which account for more than 250 schools in the country. Hence, in France, there is no national engineering degree but accredited schools’ diplomas.

  2. This paper is based on an original research conducted by Antoine Derouet from 2008 to 2010 which consisted in an exhaustive analysis of the content of 30 engineering journals published in France from 1919 to 2009, and of many reports and scholarly articles published over the last 30 years. Four case studies were also made on engineering schools, two in France and two in Belgium. The present paper is based on the French body of literature and case studies. Regarding ethics education, which is narrower than our focus, Colby and Sullivan (2008) have pointed the weak impact of the accreditation committee ABET on the teaching practices in the US.

  3. Talking about the "other education" is a means for us not to define too precisely what has not been defined precisely neither in the discourses about engineering education in France nor in teaching practices. Human and Social sciences, as well as Humanities sound too academic for the fuzzy object we study. One reason for choosing this concept is that in France the various components of engineering education are thought in opposition from one another. In addition, they are frequently thought negatively in comparison to the core scientific and technical subjects. Using the expression “the other formation” is a means to define positively what is often defined as what it is not: the “non technical education”.

  4. The French “Grandes Ecoles” is a whole higher education system built outside of the university system. This model which was engendered in the times of the very first engineering schools in the eighteenth century has long been considered to be more prestigious than any other form of higher education. This is still true for those with the best reputation.

  5. C. Didier was one of them when she wrote in the European Journal of Engineering Education about her own experience of teaching ethics at the mining school in Douai (Didier 2000).

  6. A. Dufour, lecturer in sociology in an agriculture engineering school who studied the underlying dynamic behind the introduction or relegation of sociology in her school writes that “sociology has a federative role in the curriculum”. G. Minguet also lecturer in sociology at the Ecole des Mines de Nantes considers that his role is to enable social science to be considered legitimate by the students, through creating a specific discipline: “social sciences for engineers”.

  7. G. Lazuech (1999) showed that the same logic prevailed with the issue of “internationalizing” engineering education. The adaptation of the schools depended less on the answer to an external call than on competition between schools.

  8. Polytechnician, industrial engineer, Professor of metallurgy at the Ecole des Mines, then member of the Conseil d’Etat— an organ of government with legislative and advisory functions-, Frederic Le Play (1808–1882) is considered as one of the founders of modern empirical social science. He established the basis of a social science, committed to an empirical and action-oriented approach, which goal was to ensure social peace and preserve the moral foundation of society.

  9. After a lot of reflection in the mid 80s, the French accreditation body for engineering education, CTI, had expressed its wish that humanistic training should be better informed in the programs (CTI 1995); but it had not set out any formal requirement. Only recently, the Committee created a commission in charge of clarifying the teaching goals of HSS (CTI 2010). In order to do so, its members requested the help of a group of teachers which has started in 2006 a national network of HSS researchers involved in engineering education, called Ingenium.


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The authors wish to thank Bruno Lalau, Mia MacFarlane, Simon Paye and Daria Martykànovà for proofreading this paper, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments.

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Correspondence to Antoine Derouet.

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Didier, C., Derouet, A. Social Responsibility in French Engineering Education: A Historical and Sociological Analysis. Sci Eng Ethics 19, 1577–1588 (2013).

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