October 8, 2018
I hope you’re back in the swing of the semester. Thank you for the feedback you offered in response to last month’s blog. Your input – especially when drawn from knowledge different from my own – is invaluable. I appreciate it when someone enables me to consider a topic in a completely different perspective. So, naturally, I have been reflecting on the importance of this experience for our students.
One of the values of a liberal arts education is that it grounds students in a broad variety of disciplines while affording concentrated work in one of them. It equips students with a framework of thinking to become lifelong learners, informed citizens, and live rewarding, productive lives. Pragmatically, it provides a foundation in a recognized field of knowledge that graduates need in their career or further study.
As the same time, the increasing demand for candidates qualified for high-tech jobs has compelled American institutions of higher learning to augment curriculum choices in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). While this trend continues to shape the future of economic growth and the workforce necessary to sustain it, our efforts to be responsive need not, and should not, overshadow the intrinsic value of the arts and humanities and their relevance to career success. Yet the “liberal arts vs. STEM” debate seems likely to persist.
I’d like to invite us to consider this issue in a more productive, and hopefully, inspiring way. If we re-conceive of the STEM fields and the humanities as integral parts of a whole, might we better prepare our students for when these disciplines converge in the world they will encounter? Integrating STEM education into the arts and humanities could help students expand their humanities inquires. For example, an art history major might analyze a painting using new imaging tools or dissect digital archives across time and space, opening new dimensions of knowledge. Conversely, we have large numbers of science and engineering students who could be made much better communicators and creative thinkers by learning the theoretical frameworks and analytic skills taught in humanities courses. Companies like Apple build their success on a deeper understanding of human psyche, enabled by technological advances. Employers seek competent individuals who can think critically and interact broadly.
While it’s understandable that students are concerned about securing a job upon graduation, integrating the disciplines is not just about marketability. Part of our mission as a public research university is to ensure that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds are prepared to engage with the world’s problems. For better and for worse, science and society have a reciprocal relationship. While innovation fuels our economy, its pace can yield unanticipated consequences. Biotech and artificial intelligence offer unimagined futures but come with complex moral dilemmas. Many pressing issues such as climate change are both technological and human problems. We need leaders who can “connect the dots” by making connections between different paradigms of thinking.
And then there’s life. Whatever one’s primary discipline, situating the student experience in a deeper sense of what it means to be human – and understanding that others throughout history have thought deeply about experiences we have today — is essential to a meaningful life.
If we aspire to prepare our students broadly, we must demand of ourselves the same. What I’m envisioning is the knowledge to be gained from not just studying in different specialties but learning to view each through the prism of the other. How might we create such discipline-connecting opportunities? I hope you will share your thoughts and concerns. I look forward to hearing them, and — especially – considering the question with you from a variety of different perspectives.