Here are some more reasons why liberal arts matter

The Conversation

November 5, 2015

By Cecilia Gaposchkin

Lately, in the heated call for greater STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education at every level, the traditional liberal arts have been needlessly, indeed recklessly, portrayed as the villain. And STEM fields have been (falsely) portrayed as the very opposite of the liberal arts.

The detractors of the liberal arts (who usually mean, by liberal arts, “humanities”) tend to argue that STEM-based education trains for careers while non-STEM training does not; they are often suspicious of the liberal political agenda of some disciplines. And they deem the content of a liberal arts education to be no longer relevant. The author of a recent article simply titled, “The Liberal Arts are Dead; Long Live STEM" conveyed this sentiment when he said, “Science is better for society than the arts.” ...

... We should not only accept that [STEM disciplines] are part of a liberal arts education, but we must understand that teaching them within a liberal arts framework makes the financial investment of learning them of greater value.

Peter Robbie, an engineering professor at Dartmouth College who teaches human centered design, explains why liberal education is so critical to engineering training. He said in an email to me that:

creative design process of engineering provides the means for complex, multidisciplinary problem-solving. We need to educate leaders who can solve the ‘wicked problems’ facing society (like obesity, climate change, and inequality). These are multifactorial problems that can’t be solved within a single domain but will need liberally-educated, expansive thinkers who are comfortable in many fields.

As we know, an engineer who has basic cultural competency skills (honed, for instance, through cultural studies) will be an attractive asset for an American engineering firm trying to branch out in China.

Likewise, a doctor who knows how to listen to patients will be a better primary care doctor than one who only knows the memorizable facts from medical school. This is one reason that medical schools have recently changed the requirements of application to encourage coursework in sociology and psychology.

It is the ability to use these skills honed by different types of thinking in various contexts that allows people to build beyond their particular ken.

And that is what a liberal arts education – science, technology, humanities and social sciences – trains. It prepares students for rich, creative, meaningful and, yes, remunerative, careers.

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