The Role of Science in a 21st-Century Liberal Education: Reimagining the Future

by Lynn Pasquerella

In the year following the World Health Organization’s March 2020 declaration of a global pandemic, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide exceeded 112 million. The U.S. alone recorded more than 28 million cases and over 500,000 deaths through February 2021. (1) Indeed, the life expectancy of the total population of Americans for the first half of 2020 dropped by a year—the most precipitous decline since World War II. Highlighting the disparately negative impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, disaggregated data revealed that while the life expectancy among Whites fell 0.8 years, Black males experienced a 3-year decrease and that of Hispanic males declined by 2.4 years. There was a corresponding decline for Black females, who saw a 2.3-year dip in life expectancy and for Hispanic females, whose life expectancy fell by 1.1-year. (2) These statistics signal the pervasiveness of structural racism and how it continues to perpetuate inequity in all aspects of society, including health outcomes.

As the death toll from coronavirus escalated, the global scientific community mobilized quickly in developing treatments and vaccines to redress the burgeoning spread of the virus. Called to vanquish a common enemy, more than 200 clinical trials were launched, and experts from around the world engaged in unprecedented global collaboration—transgressing borders by establishing online repositories for sharing research, while identifying hundreds of viral genome sequences.(3) Yet, the same technology that facilitated a global response to the pandemic was simultaneously deployed by those seeking to mount what the World Health Organization termed an “infodemic,” designed to promote disinformation and undermine efforts to control the public health crisis.

False narratives promoting conspiracy theories, anti-mask myths, and bogus remedies ran rampant, contributing to even greater casualties. These deaths resulted not only from the proliferation of COVID-19 due to those who readily believed the virus is a hoax but from those who sought to protect themselves and their loved ones by injecting or ingesting disinfectants, alcohol, saltwater and other fake cures and prophylactics. Another consequence of the disinformation campaign that emerged was the stoking partisan divides. Wearing a mask came to be viewed as a political statement, and anti-mask and anti-lockdown rallies began breaking out across the U.S. and Europe. Politicians supporting measures that mandated mask wearing and restricted business operations during the pandemic were subject to death threats. Healthcare workers, already experiencing moral distress and moral injury during the pandemic, were subject to verbal and physical abuse by COVID-19 deniers protesting outside of health care facilities, and anti-vaxxers began disrupting the administration of vaccinations at vaccine distributions centers. Such scenes were accompanied by a surge in violence toward Asians, fueled by xenophobic rhetoric on social media and elsewhere, referring to COVID-19 as “the China virus.”

The remarkable scientific advancements that were achieved as a global community in response to COVID-19 were threatened by a climate of anti-intellectualism, mistrust in science, and widespread lack of scientific literacy. To be sure, some of the mistrust in the scientific community has been earned. Technological advancements often precede a consideration of the ethical, legal, and social implications of their use, and certain populations have disproportionately borne the burdens of medical experimentation for the benefit of others. Throughout history, there has been an over-reliance on the efficacy of modern science and lapses into scientism.

If we have learned anything from the latest public health crisis, it is that the skills necessary for solving multifaceted challenges at the global level necessitate breaking down disciplinary silos and integrating the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and math—with the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Nowhere was this more evident than at the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S., when doctors were forced to decide which patients should be allocated the last ventilator, whether to treat patients in the absence of proper personal protective equipment, and how to address hidden biases in the allocation of scarce medical resources. No matter how much scientific and technical expertise the health care teams possessed, it proved insufficient when grappling with the most fundamental questions of human existence.

Among the most profound lessons reinforced during this global pandemic has been that the nature and complexity of the conundrums at its center are emblematic of the types of unscripted problems today’s student will inevitably encounter in the future. Their ability to respond to these challenges mandates the offering of an education that engages students from their first to their final semesters in developing a deeper-level understanding across subject areas, connecting knowledge to experience, and adopting a holistic approach to evidence-based problem solving that incorporates diverse, sometimes contradictory points of view.

Science is a central component of a liberal education aimed at nurturing a wide range of intellectual and practical skills—fostering knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, personal and social responsibility, integrative and applied learning. These proficiencies are necessary for all students’ intellectual, civic, personal, and professional development and for success in a global knowledge economy. Under this vision of liberal education for the future, the disciplinary work of science remains foundational, but students are provided with faculty-guided practice connecting learning in science with other disciplines, with the co-curriculum, and with the needs of society. It is an approach ensuring that students do not see academic disciplines as separate and disconnected silos of learning, but rather as varied approaches to the same enlightened end.

However, the objective of catalyzing integrative liberal learning across disciplines is challenged in the wake of financial pressures precipitated by COVID-19. A growing number of colleges and universities have begun excising arts, humanities, and social science programs, in favor of vocational, technical, and pre-professional programs regarded as singularly responding to demands for economic opportunity and the needs of the 21st century. Countering this trend, while recognizing the fundamental role of the arts and humanities in medical education, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has issued guidance to medical schools, supporting the integration of arts and humanities into medical school curricula. Informed by a 2018 consensus report from the National Academies of Arts and Sciences, Branches from the Same Tree, the AAMC enjoinder cites research detailing the ways in which medical students with experience in the arts and humanities have improved clinical observation and communication skills, as well as greater empathy, tolerance for ambiguity, emotional intelligence, and moral imagination.

The title of the National Academies report was taken from a quote by Albert Einstein, who in a letter written in 1937 amidst the backdrop of burgeoning fascist power in central Europe, expressed consternation over “the dangerous implications of living in a society, where long-established foundations of knowledge were corrupted, manipulated, and coerced by political forces.” Einstein maintained that “all religions, arts, and sciences are branches from the same tree.” The report concludes that “In a world where science and technology are major drivers of social change, historical, ethical, aesthetic, and cultural competencies are more critical than ever…. For, truly robust knowledge depends on the capacity to recognize the critical limitations of particular ways of knowing.” At the same time, it emphasizes that “the complex and often technical nature of contemporary issues in democratic governance demands that well-educated citizens have an appreciation of the nature of technical knowledge and of its historical, cultural, and political roles in American democracy.”(4)

At this moment of unparalleled disruption to colleges and universities, there is an opportunity to reimagine higher education by focusing on forms of inquiry that promote active engagement with real-world problems within diverse communities; by redefining excellence as an inclusive process rather than an exclusive outcome, while interrogating the culture of STEM and who belongs in it; and by emphasizing discovery and innovation through the integrative learning applied to progressively complex problems. If American higher education is to fulfill our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy, science must be deemed an essential liberal art, preparing students for success in work, citizenship, and life within the context of an increasingly interdependent, rapidly changing world.

Literature Cited

[1] World Health Organization Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard. February 24, 2021.

[2] Arias, Elizabeth, Betzaida Tejada-Vera, and Farida Ahmad. “Vital Statistics Rapid Release Report No. 010 n February 2021 Provisional Life Expectancy Estimates for January through June 2020.”

[3] Apuzzo, Matt and David D. Kirkpatrick. “COVID-19 Changes How the World Does Science, Together.” April 1, 2020.

[4] National Academies of Arts and Sciences, Branches from the Same Tree: The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education. Consensus Report.