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.
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.
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.