Reintegrating Science and the Liberal Arts

By Noah Finkelstein

  • I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, Natural History, Naval Architecture, Navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. (1)

John Adams argues that a fully educated and realized society ought to be liberally educated. He suggests a hierarchy, as well. In the modern sense, a wholly educated individual and society are ones that build on strengths of the STEM fields, but do not end there. Extending this argument, I propose that: 1) STEM fields should be included in a modern liberal education – that all individuals have access to and some obligation for mastering basic levels of scientific, mathematical, engineering, and technological literacy, and 2) the fields themselves will fundamentally benefit from broadening to incorporate the traditional liberal arts. With these approaches, we will support more fulfilling lives of individuals and a society that is more resilient, inclusive, adaptable and committed to the welfare of all.

Increasingly, our society demands of us decision making capacities that are dependent upon some understanding of content, processes and ways of thinking from the fields of science, mathematics and engineering. Aside from common arguments for developing a STEM, our societies are grappling with questions that are simultaneously resultant from STEM fields (for better and worse) and may be addressed with some understanding them. On the one hand, we are individually taking actions that accelerate or mitigate the impacts of societal challenges, such as climate change – hence the call for us to change lightbulbs and at end of An Inconvenient Truth. On the other hand, and far more significant by scale of impact, in democratic societies, we can effect policies to address our shared challenges. Our collective welfare is deeply connected to our policies and strategies, such as: how we regulate greenhouse gasses, the use of renewable energies, how we vaccinate, who we educate and more. But then, how to we come to know what is the appropriate form action? In these cases, and for our science-focused challenges, the answer is clear– better understanding of STEM-informed responses. Education is a clear route to this end. For example, early studies by Michael Ranney and colleagues demonstrate that the more people understand the mechanisms of climate change, the more likely they are to believe in it. And I add, to then act and understand the scholarly basis of response. Or, as the Founders of the United States suggested, our democracy depends upon an educated and informed electorate. Until we fully commit to broadly and fully educating our communities, we will be subject to misinformation campaigns, manipulation, or autocratic decisions that threaten to our individual well-being, our communities, and our society writ-large. Captured by one of the first federal examinations of higher education, a Truman commission notes:

  • Education is by far the biggest and the most hopeful of the Nation’s enterprises… Education is the foundation of democratic liberties. Without an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure.(2)

Of course, the value of the liberal arts has long-been argued by many, perhaps none more thoroughly and eloquently than the American Association of Colleges and subsequently the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Or previously captured by AAAS, we need to commit to Science For All and Benchmarks for science. STEM education must be folded into a liberal education, as it will impact the lives of individuals and the challenges of our society as a whole.

Complementing this argument, if science (or STEM) is good and necessary for all, so too are broadly and liberally educated STEM-practitioners. Our fields must either broaden, by drawing from domains traditionally considered within the liberal arts, or we must partner with these disciplines, or both. In many science domains, questions that were once of purview of the liberal arts are being demanded of us as STEM professionals. Is our work ethical? How might our fields be more inclusive and equitable, creating a sense of belonging for all? Why do we engage in some questions of scientific inquiry and ignore others? In addition to the remarkable productivity and advancement that our STEM fields have wrought for our society,(3) these fields are also causing some of challenges that we are facing, whether our capacity for mass manufacturing of goods and the production of “cheap” energy that contribute to climate change, or the creation of novel technologies (e.g., nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence) that simultaneously advance our capacities and challenge the existence of our societies. As such, the questions that had historically broken off from our scientific fields centuries ago become all the more relevant for our forms of scientific inquiry today. Whether for our students or current practitioners in the STEM fields, we must not only engage in problem solving but in questioning. Not only should we tackle grand scientific and technical challenges, but we should be asking: Why are we doing so? Who is involved? How does this impact society? Whose problems are we solving? We have the opportunity to move beyond educating and advancing “problem solvers” to start cultivating better “questioners.” These individuals will know whose problems we are solving and why.

For those who have considered these goals, historically we have asked for a partnership model where students learn their technical, content and epistemological skills within a domain and are supported in their creative, humane and broader skill sets through breadth requirements. While I am simultaneously a fan and a product of this approach, I argue for more. In addition to this disaggregated approach, by integrating liberal forms of inquiry within our scientific domains we can make tremendous strides. Such a vision of integrated education allows for a wide array of benefits. It immediately allows us to contextualize and personalize these traditionally more objective and abstracted forms of inquiry. This integrated approach encourages us to consider the value of the work we are engaged in. We might bring in and more substantially value education as a cornerstone of our scientific technical and engineering disciplines, broadening the array of pursuits as people move on from college, especially including teaching. We position ourselves as partners (rather than sole decision makers or those who abdicate our responsibilities) in addressing choices for our broader social enterprise. And finally, such an integrated approach allows us to broaden access to and draw from the full range of perspectives that a more diverse, inclusive and equitable enterprise of science might bring.

[1] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, post 12 May 1780 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

[2] President’s Commission on Higher Education, Higher Education for American Democracy, vol. 1, Establishing the Goals (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947

[3] I write this as the vaccine for third deadliest mass casualty event in US history has been developed in record time, and I write this on a laptop that not long ago would have been considered super computer.

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