Dr. Michael Ivins on Liberal Arts and the Vocational Sciences

Guest contributor: Dr. Michael Ivins, “Liberal Arts and the Vocational Sciences”  

One avenue for promoting the value of liberal education in an educational environment which emphasizes the importance of STEMM fields is arguing that the kind of critical thinking skills developed in the study of the humanities are beneficial not only for work in the sciences but useful for any practical enterprise. For example, I recently came across an article which argues that “[a] well-crafted liberal arts degree is the perfect training to be a data scientist,” the author going so far as to designate “Data Science as the Modern Liberal Arts” [sic].  

As educators in the liberal arts, we should of course welcome the support. But while it is true that the study of the humanities cultivates our abilities to reason, understand, and communicate, emphasizing the utility of liberal education risks underestimating its true value. For instance, only the study of the liberal arts cultivates the sort of judgment suitable for deciding in the first place whether, as the author above supposes, “[t]he world needs more data scientists,” or even, perhaps of more immediate importance, whether we ourselves ought to study data science. Chad Orzel, a professor at Union College in Schenectady, NY, encapsulates the essential nature and central goals of Why Science is Essential for Liberal Arts Education (and vice versa). He summarizes the goals of a liberal arts education: “Students should be able to analyze a situation, decide on a course of action, and advocate for their choice.” 

The locus classicus for the division of the sciences which came to be called the Quadrivium in medieval discussions of the liberal arts is the seventh book of Plato’s Republic in which Socrates lays out an elaborate curriculum of education including lengthy studies of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmony. Yet, though these studies may have great utility, their study is primarily intended to “force us to gaze at that-which-is and away from that which comes-to-be and passes away” in order to make it “easier for us to gain sight of the Form of the Good” (526e). That is, the mathematical sciences prepare us for a rational study of the Good insofar as they exercise and so develop our powers of abstract reasoning. 

Once we have our priorities straight, how then ought math and science be integrated into a classical education curriculum such that it complements rather than merely supplements the study of the humanities? How can we at the same time ensure that our graduates are also competent and competitive in STEMM fields? I will leave these as an opening questions and refer the reader to the article mentioned above as well as a thought provoking video featuring Eric Poppele, tutor and former lab director at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM. 



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