Science, Liberal Arts, and the Two Cultures Debates

This past Saturday, Chad at Uncertain Principles wrote a post about the cultural divide between the sciences and the humanities in academia.  His main point is captured in this quote (although I recommend that you read the whole post)

Intellectuals and academics are just assumed to have some background knowledge of the arts, and not knowing those things can count against you. Ignorance of math and science is no obstacle, though. I have seen tenured professors of the humanities say– in public faculty discussions, no less– “I’m just no good at math,” without a trace of shame. There is absolutely no expectation that Intellectuals know even basic math.

This clearly is an issue of concern to many in science, especially in the science blogosphere, and sparked much discussion in the comments to the original post, as well as prompting other bloggers to share their perspectives here, here, and here.  And if that’s not enough for you, check here and also this one.

I have also given much thought to this topic, and although I am a little late to this round of the discussion, I’d like to offer my two cents.  My perspective is that of a student entering grad school in physics, having just graduated from a liberal arts institution with majors in physics and math.  With this in mind, here are my scattered thoughts on this topic:

Academic does not Imply Intellectual

Academia is filled with people with specialized, technical knowledge about a particular subject, knowledge that has been painstakingly accrued through years of schooling and research.  Most of these academics are experts within some narrow subject within their field, and among the most knowledgeable about their field in general.  However, this fact alone does not mean these people are intellectuals in my book.

In my view, the intellectual is a person with a curiosity about all fields of human discovery, a Renaissance man (or woman) who has tried his hand, in depth, in all subjects.  Of course, this archetype is a little naive, and with the vast diversity of academic pursuits and the depth to which these subjects have been explored, the true modern Renaissance man is merely a figment of the imagination.  But the gist of this idea still holds true: to be an intellectual requires more than just the mastery of a narrow field.

This is not intended to be a criticism of academics who maintain a narrow focus on their field of research.  I understand that single-minded focus is often what drives some of the best researchers, and if that is truly all that interests you, more power to you.  That is not what drives me.

The Purpose and Value of a Liberal Arts Education

At an honors ceremony near the end of my senior year, I listened to a great speech on the value of a liberal arts education.  (Given by a computer science professor, no less!)  I somehow had made it through my four years of Jesuit education without realizing that the “liberal” in liberal arts refers to the Latin root liber, meaning to set free. The purpose of education is to free one’s mind from the shackles of ignorance.

This professor of computer science, one of the most practical of all subjects, brought me back to the seemingly ephemeral subject of philosophy, and the great lesson from Plato’s Republic that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  And that is exactly what I had been doing for four years: examining my life and the universe around me from every possible angle, from physics and math, to literature and fine arts, to philosophy and theology.

When we examine ourselves and our world through the lens of science, there is no doubt that we are learning much.  But this view is narrow and two-dimensional.  It is through the other subjects that we through our lives into relief and paint them in technicolor.

Science and Math as Liberal Arts

In several places that I have linked above, I noticed the humanities and the arts being referred to as “the liberal arts.”  I think that’s pretty common terminology, but I think that we as scientists should try to avoid that.  The sciences and math should also be taught as liberal arts.

In colleges and universities, science and math are, by necessity, taught by scientists.  I think these scientists do a great job at teaching those who think like them: namely science and math majors.  These students need to become technically proficient in their chosen field, and their professors are happy to teach them problem-solving skills, calculation techniques, and laboratory habits that will serve them well in future study.

These professors have a harder time (in general) with non-science majors.  Clearly, these students do not need to become technically proficient in science, and usually have no desire to do so.  Their professors know how to teach students to calculate, so they take that same approach in their “physics for poets” class, although at a much lower level.  The good students learn to plug and chug through Newton’s equations without understanding much of anything, and other students get even less than that.  Then everyone moves on without any understanding of how physics might be important to their lives.

I saw in a comment somewhere that there is no equivalent “poetry for physicists” class, and to a certain extent, this is true.  However, in our attempt to “dumb down” physics to make it accessible to all (read: those without the necessary math background), we may have made it useless.  The consensus that I heard from my non-science friends is that their science classes were easy, boring, and they didn’t remember anything past the end of the semester.  On the other hand, many of my humanities classes were challenging, interesting, and have stuck with me to this day.

I think the approach that humanities classes take has much to do with this.  My literature professor didn’t try to teach me the rudiments of literary criticism.  Rather, he walked me through some interesting books, and offering enlightening thoughts about the text and helping me shape some semi-original thoughts of my own into essays.  At the end of the class, I was slightly more well-read on the subject, and I had been challenged to think in depth about topics that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

Is there a way to mirror this in physics classes?  Too often, professors simply use the chalkboard to transfer the material from their notes to the students’ notes without passing through anyone’s brain.  Can’t we find a way to capture students’ interest in a way that makes them try to come up with some original thoughts of their own?  It may be hard to do this, because in most situations, the answer to the question is already known, and may have been known for centuries.  But I think that simply spoon-feeding the answers without allowing the students to think simply bores them to death.

A contrasting take on this topic from awhile ago can be found here.

The Jeopardy Problem

This problem, at least in the context of science, is very well explained in this post over at An American Physics Student in England.  In short, flip is calling out the common misconception that science is merely a collection of facts.  As all science students know, it is the scientific method and the processes of problem solving and the creativity that goes along with it that makes all the difference.  Let us not make this same mistake about the humanities.

Many of the posts and comments talk about knowing the difference between Bach and Beethoven, or some such comparison.  And while knowing Bach = Baroque and Beethoven = Classical and Romantic will score some points with the intellectuals at the cocktail party and a Double Jeopardy answer question or two, this is hardly the point of education.  I learned more about music by playing the trumpet for seven years than I ever would have in a music appreciation class where I would have learned all the facts about famous composers.  Ditto for the drawing class that I took versus looking at slides of famous paintings.  Education is about getting involved with and thinking about a subject, not memorizing trivia.  And the sooner we realize this about the humanities, the better we’ll be able to convince them the same thing about science.

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4 Responses to “Science, Liberal Arts, and the Two Cultures Debates”


  1. 1 Avdhesh Kumbhar July 31, 2008 at 4:59 AM

    Yes i agree the scientists teach maths and science better. Great article

  2. 2 Ponder Stibbons July 31, 2008 at 8:51 AM

    Good post. I think that on average, humanities/social sciences professors are more likely to take their introductory classes seriously, whereas in many introductory science classes, professors have an “I’m doing this because someone has to and I couldn’t squirm my way out of it” attitude. One excuse that always comes up is that for the mathematical sciences, it’s difficult to design an introductory curriculum that is both meaningful and isn’t beyond the mathematical ability of most of the non-science majors. But my experience has been that even classes for physics majors are often taught in the ‘bad’ way, where students are expected to imbibe equations from the blackboard without really understanding them. Contrastingly, almost every humanities class involves actively thinking through the subject in a way that leads you to the ‘right’ conclusion — it’s pretty much assumed that if you don’t teach it that way, you’re not teaching anything at all. My favourite physics class by far was taught by someone who actually did things that way — he would ‘prod’ us with provocative questions until we were led to propose the right approach to a physical or mathematical problem. Of course, we weren’t expected to come up with the exact same breakthroughs that the great physicists/mathematicians did — only to at least inch somewhat towards the correct strategy or way of thinking, so that when the formalisms were finally presented, we would understand the motivations behind them, we would understand why they were in that form.

    I think the spoonfeeding method of teaching science owes a great deal to the way science textbooks are designed, especially at undergraduate and pre-university levels. You will almost never see textbooks for subjects in the humanities (except those that involve learning languages, music included). This is because, again, it’s taken for granted that learning the humanities does not consist in learning a collection of facts that can be laid out on paper. But the vast majority of introductory textbooks to science subjects are done that way — they put fact after fact, or equation after equation, on the page, do a few example problems to show how they are applied, and that’s that. Now, obviously it’s important for students to have a reference for the important derivations and so on. But I think too much space is expended on mechanical derivations as opposed to explanations of the physical concepts at play and of the motivations behind them. N. G. van Kampen coined a very apt phrase for the kind of instruction that usually happens in physics classes nowadays: ‘the spoonfeeding of predigested formalisms’. (Sorry I’ve gone on for so long — this is something of a bee in my bonnet.)

    And I agree that many of the commenters on this question have the wrong idea of what a humanities education is supposed to provide. Knowing how to distinguish Bach and Beethoven is analogous to knowing the verbal description of the second law of thermodynamics. You can fake it for a while at parties but you haven’t necessarily understood anything.


  1. 1 Science » Tom Cruise's Aggressive Private Investigator [Celebrity Science] Trackback on July 31, 2008 at 11:26 AM
  2. 2 Chad » links for 2008-08-05 [delicious.com] [Uncertain Principles] Trackback on August 15, 2008 at 5:02 AM

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