Reclaiming Science as a Liberal Art

What do you think of when someone talks about the liberal arts? Many of you probably think of subjects like English and literature, history, classics, and philosophy. Those are all a good start for a liberal education, but those are only fields in the humanities. Perhaps you think of the social sciences, to help you understand the institutions and actors in our culture; fields like psychology, sociology, or economics. What about subjects like physics, biology, chemistry, or astronomy? Would you ever think of them as belonging to the liberal arts, or would you cordon them off into the STEM fields? I would argue that excluding the sciences from the liberal arts is both historically wrong and harms society.

First, let’s look at the original conception of the liberal arts. Your study would begin with the trivium, the three subjects of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The trivium has been described as a progression of study into argument. Grammar is concerned with how things are symbolized. Logic is concerned with how things are understood. Rhetoric is concerned with how things are effectively communicated, because what good is it to understand things if you cannot properly share your understanding to other learned people? With its focus on language, the trivium does fit the common stereotype of the liberal arts as a humanistic writing education.

But it is important to understand that the trivium was considered only the beginning of a liberal arts education. It was followed by the supposedly more “serious” quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The quadrivium is focused on number and can also be viewed as a progression. Arithmetic teaches you about pure numbers. Geometry looks at number to describe space. Music, as it was taught in the quadrivium, focused on the ratios that produce notes and the description of notes in time. Astronomy comes last, as it builds on this knowledge to understand the mathematical patterns in space and time of bodies in the heavens. Only after completing the quadrivium, when one would have a knowledge of both language and numbers, would a student move on to philosophy or theology, the “queen of the liberal arts”.

7 Liberal Arts

The seven liberal arts surrounding philosophy.

Although this progression might seem strange to some, it makes a lot of sense when you consider that science developed out of “natural philosophy”. Understanding what data and observations mean, whether they are from a normal experiment or “big data”, is a philosophical activity. As my professors say, running an experiment without an understanding of what I was measured makes me a technician, not a scientist. Or consider alchemists, who included many great experimentalists who developed some important chemical insights, but are typically excluded from our conception of science because they worked with different philosophical assumptions. The findings of modern science also tie into major questions that define philosophy. What does it say about our place in the universe if there are 10 billion planets like Earth in our galaxy, or when we are connected to all other living things on Earth through chemistry and evolution?

We get the term liberal arts from Latin, artes liberales, the arts or skills that are befitting of a free person. The children of the privileged would pursue those fields. This was in contrast to the mechanical arts – fields like clothesmaking, agriculture, architecture, martial arts, trade, cooking, and metalworking. The mechanical arts were a decent way for someone without status to make a living, but still considered servile and unbecoming of a free (read “noble”) person. This distinction breaks down in modern life because we are no longer that elitist in our approach to liberal education. We think everyone should be “free”, not just an established elite.

More importantly, in a liberal democracy, we think everyone should have some say in how they are governed. Many major issues in modern society relate to scientific understanding and knowledge. To talk about vaccines, you need to have some understanding of the immune system. The discussion over chemicals is very different when you know that we are made up chemicals. It is hard to understand what is at stake in climate change without a knowledge of how Earth’s various geological and environmental systems work and it is hard to evaluate solutions if you don’t know where energy comes from. Or how can we talk about surveillance without understanding how information is obtained and how it is distributed? The Founding Fathers say they had to study politics and war to win freedom for their new nation. As part of a liberal education, Americans today need to learn to science in order to keep theirs.

(Note: This post is based off a speech I gave as part of a contest at UVA. It reflects a view I think is often unconsidered in education discussions, so I wanted to adapt it into a blog post.

As another aside, it’s incredibly interesting people now tend to unambiguously think of social sciences as part of the liberal arts while wavering more on the natural sciences since the idea of a “social” science wasn’t really developed until well after the conception of the liberal arts.)

A Neat Bit of UVA Engineering History

Consider this an incredibly belated addendum to my musing on what’s in a name in the professions of science and engineering. I pointed out that Purdue calls the academic unit devoted to studying materials a college of Materials Engineering, and doesn’t have science in the name. I learned from the professor I TA under this semester that my department is the reason UVA has a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia was founded in 1962. Evidently the school was only called the School of Engineering before that. When the MSE department was established, they added “Applied Sciences” (or maybe just the singular, I’m a bit unsure) to reflect the nature of research in the new department. Pretty cool.

A doctorate in the universe

Probably one of the hardest choices I made in college.

The Careers section of Science has an interesting article about specialization in science, by the author of this wonderful grad school guide. I agree that the specialization of science is something people often don’t know about, leading to pop culture icons who seem to be able to do research in completely unrelated fields. And it can have it’s drawbacks. Every few years, another article seems to lament the increasing specialization of science.

But it’s worth pointing out that specialization isn’t unique to science; it seems common in “analytical” fields, for lack of a better term. Most medical doctors end up specializing in residency (and there is a specialty crisis in medicine too). And while people may not think of it, lawyers generally practice in a specific field of law, but unlike a science PhD or medical residency, I don’t think that would show up on just by looking at education. But ask a question about patent law to a civil rights lawyer, and they might not have an immediate answer. And virtually every person in academia has to specialize in their own field.

But like Ruben says, just because we work in a specialty, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn about anything else.

Should Science Majors Cost Less?

The Atlantic has just published an interesting article: should public universities charge less for majors the state considers to be economically important?  The idea is a proposal from a Florida higher education task force.  The article brings up some immediate problems that come to mind, namely that it can be hard to predict specific majors that will be important over long periods of time and that this system and that students aren’t equally good at all majors.

I can also think of some other problems.  First, science and engineering majors actually require big capital investments from colleges.  They require lots of equipment and materials for labs.  Lowering the “cost” of these majors to students puts more of the cost needed for education on the university.  I could also see this system becoming gamed by smaller schools.  The actual proposal doesn’t just refer to STEM majors, it’s about any major the state considers important to its industries.  According to the Atlantic article, the Florida government has already designated the STEM disciplines, some education specialties, health fields, emergency and security services, and “globalization” as “strategic areas of emphasis”.  It’s not stated, but I would assume the state would help schools make up the difference between normal tuition and the price for discounted majors.  But what’s to stop a school from choosing to focus on say education and foreign affairs to get extra money from the state, and have a bare-bones science program so the extra money can go to other expenses?  Or who’s to say a school won’t try to encourage as many kids as possible from joining full or extra price majors to get more money, especially if an influx of STEM students on discounted tuition were to severely affect finances for labs?

On a less practical note, I would also worry this might homogenize the schools.  There’s a lot to learn from meeting people of different majors in college, or just meeting people who are really passionate about their field.  If a lot of friends are just majoring in mechanical engineering because “it’s cheap”, I wonder how effective they would be.  And what ideas they might never have if they never run into a philosophy or music major.

A “scientist” by any other name

I’ve just started reading “The Essential Engineer“, a somewhat belated college graduation gift I bought for myself as I switch from being a “science” student as undergrad to an “engineering” student in grad school.  And just the preface has already made me start screaming yes (in my head).  Evidently one of the points the author, Henry Petroski, hopes to drive home is the difference between science and engineering.  And this strikes me as something fairly important, especially because you see it pop up ALL. THE. TIME.  Petroski writes about a story in The New York Times about the arrest of a worker at Los Alamos National Lab that switches between calling the accused a “scientist” and an “engineer”.  Or the near-universal American description of aerospace engineering as “rocket science”.  It’s also interesting, because it seems like a kind of weird conflation, given that engineering has only become heavily dependent on science in the last century.  To me, it seems kind of like calling the person who operates on you and the person who manages your medication both “doctors”, though maybe this example falls flat because people do tend to run into surgeons and pharmacists a lot.

One could claim that this is nitpicking, and to be fair, it kind of is.  But I feel like conflating two entire general professions might actually harm them.  For example, my undergrad institution’s student newspaper recently published an editorial about the career fair being too “science-focused”, but then went on to only talk about how most companies wanted engineers.  That’s certainly a legitimate complaint, but it ignores the fact that my undergrad university had very few companies recruit students in non-engineering science majors (which would be considered the ACTUAL science majors).  For some reason a lot of advisors viewed the science majors as not being in the “liberal arts” either, and while I could understand not viewing something like biology as being equivalent to art history, that doesn’t really fit the traditional view of liberal arts in my mind.  It also put science majors in this weird Twilight Zone between “practical” engineering and “useless” liberal arts fields.  Or there’s the fact that a lot of “STEM reform” seems really engineering-focused.  To use my own life as an example, I didn’t really know what engineering was until college when I was exposed to it.  I kept thinking I would do physics even though I knew I didn’t want to do theoretical physics.

Of course, there’s also some rationale for the science/engineering confusion.  If you’re in physics or chemistry and aren’t involved in fundamental theory, the distinction between science and engineering can be kind of blurred.  (Aside: ecology and the various disciplines of the Earth and space sciences don’t have this problem as much)  The research project I worked on at Rice on polymer membranes could very easily have fallen into a chemical engineering or materials science department, but I worked for a chemist.  Honestly, the main reason it might not have been engineering was how far away the research was from practical application at this stage.  But my roommate in Virginia is a biomedical engineer, and his work is a very basic science project that is also years away from practical application.  If you’re in industry, I’m not sure if there really is a clear division between, say, a chemist and a chemical engineer.  On the other end, some engineering research in academia can be very fundamental.  At one of my summer jobs in an engineering lab, one of the other students (an applied physics grad student) was working on developing a model to describe why carbon nanotubes bend during growth.  While that would be useful for manufacturing longer nanotubes, to be honest, there was a lot of mechanics he was considering in his model that we don’t understand yet.

The seemingly growing popularity of engineering science programs also blurs the distinction.  And of course, my new field also has a confusing name.  I’m in a “materials science and engineering” department, but you can also find departments labelled only as “materials science” or “materials engineering”.  Purdue has an amusing anecdote that their department is just “materials engineering” because the natural science departments objected to the engineering college using “science”.  But that’s actually one of the reasons I do find the field very attractive.  There is a very strong engineering, “practical” side of it, but also a side focused on understanding the science of how materials work.

So I realize this was kind of a rant, but I hope someone finds this interesting, because I do.