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By Amber Cleveland

In 2003, political theorist Langdon Winner was invited to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science. Nanotechnology, a field of science based on manipulating matter at the scale of the nanometer, had gained growing recognition as an emerging technology with revolutionary potential, and Winner was called to Washington to participate in a discussion about its possible societal implications.

Winner acknowledged nanotechnology’s bright promise, but also urged committee members to consider what factors could influence the successful adoption of this — and other — new technologies into society, and to think about what questions should be discussed during the research and development phase to help minimize the potentially disruptive impacts of powerful technological developments.

Today, Winner continues to study the ways in which technological breakthroughs ranging from computing to communications will positively or negatively impact society. He is hailed by the Wall Street Journal as “the leading academic on the politics of technology.” He is also one of more than 100 academics in Rensselaer’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences (H&SS) who are investigating and exploring how technology functions in relation to culture.

For over a half century, H&SS has been building bridges from the liberal arts to the disciplines of engineering and science through the study of technology’s role in society. This year it celebrates 50 years of granting degrees on the Rensselaer campus, as well as the adoption of a new name that better articulates its academic strengths. Now called the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, the school continues to build upon its strengths in arts and design — valuable dimensions of interdisciplinary work in the humanities and social sciences — while always anticipating the expanding role of the humanities in the 21st century.

H&SS took shape in the mid-1950s under the guidance of Dr. Ronald A. H. Mueller, who later became the school’s dean. A standardized core of liberal arts was formed shortly thereafter to ensure students were being provided with a well-rounded science and technology education enhanced with a strong grounding in the humanities and social sciences. All students were required to take a minimum of eight “general studies” classes ranging from English and philosophy to history and social sciences.

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By 1958 the school’s mission had transcended simply providing core courses for engineers and scientists to offering its own unique degree programs in language and literature, philosophy, psychology, and economics. The Department of Language, Literature, and Communication pioneered the study of technical communication (or technical writing), offering the nation’s first degree in the field.

Father Thomas Phelan — a Troy native who came to Rensselaer in 1959 as the resident Catholic chaplain — was appointed dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in 1972. “I certainly was not shocked when the Institute appointed Father Tom as dean of H&SS,” says Rensselaer board member Judge Art Gajarsa ’62, who says Phelan had a “direct impact on my life.” Gajarsa is a circuit judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

As a sophomore engineering student, Gajarsa was contemplating switching universities to obtain a broader education when Phelan convinced him to finish his undergraduate degree at Rensselaer and provided him with a reading list and books about history, literature, and economics so he could supplement his engineering studies with a grounding in the humanities.

“Rensselaer knew how to educate great engineers and great scientists,” says Gajarsa. “Father Tom could take those engineers and scientists, educate them about the humanities, expose them to various aspects of culture — such as music and the arts — and set them on a path to becoming CEOs, directors of research, and leaders in industry. He was an advocate for broadening horizons and as dean of H&SS he did just that for countless students.”

Phelan served as H&SS dean until 1994 and as Institute Dean and Historian until his death in 2006. Under his leadership, the school moved into the Russell Sage Laboratory — which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Three of the school’s five departments continue to be housed in the building today.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.