The Sciences as Liberal Arts

I fear that those of us who teach history, literature, philosophy, languages, etc. too often tend to say “the liberal arts” when we really mean “the humanities” — forgetting that the latter is only one set of disciplines within the former.

12th century illustration of the liberal arts
12th century illustration of the seven liberal arts, including arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy – Wikimedia

I’m as guilty as anyone. A long time ago, I imprecisely used the tag “Liberal Arts” for a post that was really about the humanities and have been too lazy to change course when I write about, say, whether or not majors like English and history are declining in American colleges and universities. But even though more and more statistical evidence is put forth calling into question that supposed decline, we humanists are nervous enough that we tend to see the natural sciences (plus technology, engineering, and math — STEM disciplines) as our rivals for tightening budgets and enrollments. And we’re quick to protest when politicians on both sides of the aisle extoll the virtues of STEM and neglect to celebrate (or actively deride) the value of the humanities.

To a point, I’m fine with that: I harbor no illusions that the humanities are just fine and dandy, thankyouverymuch. But I’m not interested in making the case for the humanities by making one against the sciences. And not just because the seven classical liberal arts included arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. But because however we define the purpose of that model of education (and I want to post about that later this week or early next), it cannot neglect the insights of math and science and pretend to be “well-rounded” or “liberating.” I can’t tell you how glad I am that Bethel’s general education curriculum not only requires introductory lab science and mathematics courses, but an upper-division course in a category that explores “Science, Technology, and Society.” (In my undergraduate experience at a nationally-ranked public college, my first and last science course was an intro to biology taken my first semester, with the curriculum’s math requirement having been satisfied by two years of high school calculus that I’ve completely forgotten.)

Nor, of course, should the sciences be taught in isolation from the humanities. But I don’t know any scientist who would disagree: they don’t pretend that a chem lab or calculus exercise prepares one to think critically about one’s culture, or to express oneself persuasively in writing or speech. Here I’m blessed to have colleagues like the physicist I’ve been talking with off and on today about writing on teaching as conversion for our forthcoming book on Pietism and Christian higher education, or the chemist whom we interviewed last summer for our online Christianity and Western Culture class — he was as eager to talk about medieval religion as the Scientific Revolution.

John Maeda
John Maeda – Creative Commons (Robert Scoble)

So it was intriguing to read about a proposal that STEM become STEAM, adding “arts, culture, and humanities.” Though it originates with John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island College of Design, I encountered it via the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, giving a brief talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival:

We all know that stories and narratives form the basis of who we are, what we believe in, how we act, where we come from, how we feel, and how others feel. When we tell a story using all of our senses, with touch, with our eyes, with our ears, with our experiences, with movement, we make that memorable. And then we become curious …. This is all in the service of creating a national imagination. And it all starts with turning STEM into STEAM.


4 thoughts on “The Sciences as Liberal Arts

  1. Thank you for your self-correction. I find many others making the same mistake of thinking that Liberal Arts and Humanities are the same thing. That said, I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that the Arts/Sciences/Humanities categories are insufficient for Christian education, let alone Christian higher education. I think it’s rooted in a purpose and a societal paradigm that no longer exists.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Garland (and sorry for the delayed response). I wonder if you’d like to elaborate on your last couple of sentences. What do you find insufficient about those categories? What purpose or paradigm do you see disappearing?

      1. I understand delays; real life happens :). Here’s the shortest answer I can give.

        As I understand it, the liberal arts were knowledge and skills required for a free person in Greece (in contrast to the manual laborer or slave). While the idea of a body of knowledge and skills for the citizen is a good one (I actually believe in liberal arts) I think that creating an educational model out of a class-based system runs counter to the purposes of Christian education and education in a democracy such as the United States (where, theoretically, we are in a classless system) that gives free education to all its citizens.

        What is Christian education? I would define it as, “A systematic set of experiences that help people love the father, through the son, by the spirit as an appropriate response to divine revelation.” In keeping with that, I find that the categories of arts, sciences, and humanities are helpful, but are rooted in Greek philosophy; they (the categories) don’t provide direct support for the definition I use. For example, the humanities are a study of culture. I think this is a good thing, but from a systematic standpoint, the humanities (as they are currently categorized) and the study of culture doesn’t tie back to the purpose and definition.

        Further, I believe that Christian education is concerned with the whole mind: knowledge, skills and values, whereas the liberal arts generally focus on knowledge and skills (with the assumption that the knowledge will shape the values). As one of my teachers said, “If you don’t plan for the goal, you won’t meet it.”

        Finally, I find we are in a knowledge-based educational paradigm (and this is a problem). With the explosion of information (I heard someone say once that knowledge in a field doubles every five to ten years) and the availability of information (Google is at most people’s fingertips, at least in the West) I found that my students could obtain just about any piece of information I asked them to find. Their problem was that the words of Joe Blogger had just as much weight as Manny Scientist, PhD; they didn’t know what to do with the information once they got it. I’m concluding that we should shift from a cognition-based system to a conation-based system; from a WHAT to know, to a HOW to act.

        The content wouldn’t change, but the approach should.

  2. Thanks, Garland!! This should help nudge me toward completing an oft-delayed post on a Christian understanding of the liberal arts — since I would argue that the highest purpose of that model of education is not to acquire knowledge or cultivate skills (though neither is insignificant) but to transform the whole person (including what that person values – or better, loves). Historically, I’d say that the liberal arts descend to us more directly from the medieval university than ancient Athens, but that’s not much of an improvement if having roots in a hierarchical system renders them incompatible with democratic education. I guess I’d say that, however they were understood 2500 or 1000 years ago, it’s conceivable that denizens of a present-day “classless system” could benefit from this model… Unless you were trying to get at the kinds of social and economic hurdles that our system of higher education has put in the way of lower-income students — which are substantial, as I’ve blogged about before. Among other things, I do think (to go back to Aristotle) that the liberal arts require leisure: and that’s an obvious challenge for our students who have jobs, families, etc.

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