Education Society

It’s Time to Reinvent Liberal Arts Education


2015 was a tumultuous year for higher education, and I doubt 2016 will be much different. Higher education, especially in America, is going through the most dramatic evolution in its modern history, and we see those changes — pedagogical, cultural, financial — across campuses throughout this country. With the cost of college seemingly on an ever-in creasing trajectory, one of the major issues currently debated is the role of a traditional Liberal Arts education. More than one political leader has argued recently that studying non-technical subjects in college is a waste of time and money and that college should be — as it is for the most part in Europe, for example — professional training for a “serious” vocation such as engineering or science.

In presenting the case against a Liberal Arts education, the arguments tend to focus on (a) the economic consequences of this course of study and (b) the societal harm of training “thinkers” versus “doers” such as engineers and scientists. On the first point, one reads constantly that Liberal Arts graduates have a hard time getting jobs after college and are often at a serious disadvantage in the business workforce, given their lack of basic finance or management training. On the second front, it’s a common belief that the U.S. does not produce enough Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) graduates, which is why so many of those jobs here are filled by immigrants.

In response to these claims, a lot of academics rush to the defense of someone majoring in English or History, arguing that these subjects develop thinking and writing skills that are (a) more useful in the long-run and (b) good for society. In reading through many of these defenses of a Liberal Arts education, I am struck by the arrogant tone that some of these defenders take. Time and again I read critiques of STEM educations that make it seem that anyone majoring in Biology or Engineering will never be exposed to a single intellectual discussion in their entire college career. Indeed, as one writer put it:

Without a liberal arts component, students also graduate without the intellectual, theoretical, and conceptual capacity to engage in an analysis of society, without the ability to function as a productive citizen in a democracy, and without the tools of empowerment to recognize and overcome injustice or intellectual oppression. (1)

That’s quite a critique of non-Liberal Arts education, but is it really a fair one? I think not. I majored in Humanities and Classics but have worked with engineers and scientists my whole career. I have never found them any less able to “engage in an analysis of society” or “function as a productive citizen in a democracy,” because they did not major in English or Philosophy. Moreover, I have met many an English or History major who possessed thinking and writing skills that were significantly poorer than the average STEM graduate.

There are, of course, more nuanced defenders of Liberal Arts education, and one of the most distinguished voices in this camp is The University of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum. In her writings and speeches, she has presented her main position, which is that a Liberal Arts education is the best way to foster three important attributes:

1: Critical Thinking

Nussbaum: “All modern democracies are prone to hasty and sloppy thinking and to the substitution of invective for argument. A classroom that teaches the virtues of critical analysis and respectful debate can go at least some way to form citizens for a more deliberative democracy.”

2: A Global Viewpoint

Nussbaum: “Citizens who cultivate their humanity need, further…an ability to see themselves as not simply citizens of some local region or group but also, and above all, as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern: as “citizens of the world,” as the ancient Greco-Roman tradition expressed the idea.”

3: Imagination

Nussbaum: “Citizens cannot think well on the basis of factual knowledge alone. The third ability of the citizen, closely related to the first two, can be called the narrative imagination. This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.”

While I do not disagree with Nussbaum’s claims, I would not make the same argument in defending the Liberal Arts education, because I think that most students majoring in English or History today do not receive a Liberal Arts education at all. For if we think back to the earliest thoughts on this topic, which are probably the letters of the Roman writer Seneca, the idea was that a “liberal” education was one that “liberated” a citizen from a thoughtless existence — one beholden to traditional thinking only for its own sake and not for any intrinsic value. In order to meet that goal today, reading Shakespeare or even Plato is not enough. To function fully as a “free” citizen in the modern world, every man and woman today must be able to understand and critique advancements in genetics, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, etc. You cannot do that if the most complex math you studied in college was a freshman algebra course or if your understanding of science is based on the equivalent to the infamous “Physics for Poets” classes.

Because a modern free society requires an equal understanding of Aristotle and Einstein, it’s time to redefine a Liberal Arts education not as the vague umbrella term for majors such as English or History (often not the most rigorous courses of study, it must be admitted) but as the comprehensive education of a citizen for a modern 21st Century society. To that extent I propose that a real Liberal Arts education should have three goals:

  1. Educate the student on the foundational ideas needed to understand and critique modern society;
  2. Instruct the student in application of scientific, engineering and mathematical analytic methods; and
  3. Open to the student as many options as possible for subsequent graduate study (as opposed to a STEM major which intentionally narrows them).

In order to meet these three goals, I propose that Liberal Arts should be a major in itself, comprised of the foundational subjects that underpin modern society, grouped in two tracks that I call Scientific and Humanistic:

Scientific: Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Medicine, and Computer Science

Humanistic: Economics, Law, Literature, Art, Psychology, Ethics and History

In my model, a Liberal Arts major would be as exposed to Medicine as to Melville. She would understand how engineers design airplanes as well as how Shakespeare designed a sonnet. She would be as prepared to pursue an MA or an MD after graduation. She would know the major Supreme Court decisions and their impact, as well as how drugs are developed and tested. She would be exposed to the major issues facing mathematicians and data scientists today, as well as the history of China and India. In order to graduate, she would have to write a thesis in one of the Humanistic fields as well as complete a research project in one of the Scientific areas. The former requirement is the best way to demonstrate that someone has learned to process and synthesize ideas. The latter requirement is equally important, for, as one writer noted:

…one pedagogical practice humanities majors might miss if they do not participate in any science course is the actively engaging laboratory investigation that requires their creativity and critical thinking skills that will help them in a society increasingly dependent on technology. For students not majoring in science, investigative labs help them learn how to evaluate scientific research in the context of societal issues and to acquire the problem-solving skills they will need in any aspect of their lives. The nonscientist, who is never exposed to this manner of inquiry and discovery, will be left behind in tomorrow’s increasingly technological environment, unable to make informed decisions about the pressing issues of the next generation.

The model above, or some better evolution of it, is what a Liberal Arts education should be in the 21st Century. Of course, this idea puts a burden on scientific faculty as well, for they have to embrace their responsibly to train not just scientists but also non-scientists. The mathematician Dr. William Jaco made a similar point at a 2013 meeting of the American Mathematical Society, when he noted that the “mathematical sciences must adapt to the evolving and expanding needs in the mathematical preparation of the future workforce” and that they “must attract and produce more broadly trained mathematical sciences majors” (2). This need to rethink their relationship with Liberal Arts majors cuts across all scientific disciplines. Indeed, as one prominent Classics professor told me after reading an earlier version of this post:

Part of the problem with humanists’ knowledge of science is the scientists themselves, who, with a few notable and wonderful exceptions (i.e., Lewis Thomas, Richard Feynman, E.O. Wilson), write only for scientists. I subscribed to (and read) The Scientific American for three decades. Then, about ten years ago, the magazine changed its editorial policy and started publishing articles at a level of technical detail no longer suitable for  readers like me, who had taken college science courses (in my case, a year of biology, a year of physics, and two years of chemistry–all lab courses). I let my subscription lapse. 

This particular professor then informed me that he has spoken to NASA scientists on several occasions on Homer and Herodotus, which is as heartening as it is unusual.

This efforts of this academic, and others I could mention, suggest to me that the intellectual integration I propose in this article is already being discussed. One sometimes hears the term STEAHM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Humanities, and Math) to refer to a similar concept, and my idea isn’t even that new. Back in 1982, the Sloan Foundation funded a program called “The New Liberal Arts,” which was an attempt to create “technologically enlightened humanists” (3). My Classicist friend reminded me that as far back as the 1960s, CP Snow, in his book The Two Cultures, lamented “that the world of academe was dividing into the humanistic and the scientific and that this would result in a world where humanists knew much less about science than scientists about literature and art.” Indeed, in a 1959 lecture at Cambridge, Snow famously commented on this disheartening evolution:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? (4)

Sadly, Snow was prophetic, and no doubt his words echoed in Sloan’s efforts to address this divide. It’s a shame that Snow’s warning was not heeded, since doing so might would  have avoided the STEM v. non-STEM debate we are having today. The reality is that there should be no dichotomy between Liberal Arts and Science. After all, many of the beacons of a classical Liberal Arts education — from Aristotle to DaVinci — left legacies of scientific achievements as impressive as those they bequeathed the Humanities. In our own day, the work of ethicists and writers guiding the evolution of Artificial Intelligence and Biology should be considered as much a part of the Liberal Arts curriculum as Bach or Ellison. For its part, Science, in its constant search for truth and understanding in the physical world, is in some ways more faithful to the ideas of Seneca than many non-STEM fields of study.

The liberal in Liberal Arts can have many meanings. My preferred reference is to the idea of freedom from thinking that is unquestioned and a life that is unexamined. A Liberal Arts education should be the finest training for securing that freedom that we can give to a young person. I hope that at least some Liberal Arts institutions (including my own Hampden-Sydney College) will embrace the challenge to redefine themselves for the future and recommit themselves not to a set of subjects that needs constant defending but to a curriculum that, in nature and purpose, is the finest education a critical citizen can receive.


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