several occasions earlier this year, I received a copy of a one-minute
video clip attached to an e-mail message. Usually sent with little
more introduction than, “You’ll enjoy this,” and
cryptically titled “The Knack,” the video shows a young
Dilbert and his mother in a doctor’s examination room.
As little Dilbert sits beside her on the exam table, his mother
explains that she is worried about her child because “he’s
not like other kids.” When the doctor asks her to elaborate,
she tells of leaving Dilbert alone for a short time only to come
back to find that he had disassembled the clock, television and
stereo. When the doctor assures her that such behavior is “perfectly
normal,” she adds that what really worries her is that Dilbert
used the components to make a ham radio set.
The doctor mutters, “Oh, dear” and explains that normally
he would run an EEG on the child but that the machine was not working.
In the meantime, Dilbert has gotten down from the exam table, opened
up the EEG machine and fixed it. Upon seeing this, the doctor admits
that Dilbert’s condition was worse than he had feared. He
turns to the mother and announces, “I’m afraid your
son has ... the knack.”
The doctor explains that “the knack” is a “rare
condition, characterized by an extreme intuition about all things
mechanical and electrical and utter social ineptitude.” When
Dilbert’s mother asks if her son can “lead a normal
life,” the doctor responds, “No, he’ll be an engineer.”
At hearing this, she sobs.
Although the dialogue suggests that the video clip is ridiculing
engineers, I got the distinct impression from viewing it that the
animated cartoon is not necessarily presenting engineers—even
engineers-to-be—in a negative light. Young Dilbert, who is
generally quiet throughout the vignette, comes across as a charming
little boy, politely listening to adults talk about him. While his
mother explains her concerns, he dangles his legs, like a pair of
pendulums, sometimes in and sometimes out of phase with each other.
When the doctor hits Dilbert’s right knee to test its reflexes,
he utters a little “oop,” and both legs rise. To me,
this kind of light touch to his personality separates Dilbert from
the nerds. He is a real kid with a real sense of humor.
he gets the inoperative EEG machine to start, Dilbert ironically
becomes the hero of the drama. While the doctor and mother had talked,
Dilbert fixed what the doctor evidently could not. There is no stigma
to having “the knack” to do this and so be destined
to be an engineer. After all, it is engineers who design and understand
the workings of the countless medical devices that enable doctors
to diagnose and treat all kinds of conditions.
What is disappointing about the video clip is the seemingly gratuitous
characterization of engineers as being socially inept. But in the
doctor’s office, little Dilbert demonstrates none of the ineptitude
he exhibits as a grownup engineer in his comic strip. Is it something
about engineering education that has changed him?
Engineering education is certainly primarily about inculcating
technical prowess, but it does not diminish the technical if some
social lessons also are introduced in the classroom. Might we not
benefit our students by encouraging more open discussion about what
it means to be an engineer in the world beyond the problem set?
We should want all engineers to feel comfortable with the technical
and the nontechnical alike, and we might be able to help them with
the latter by encouraging them to strive to communicate with words
and thoughts as well as they do with numbers and equations.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil
Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest
books are “Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering”
and “Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design.”