Science is a liberal art


Among my peeves is when people say that science is not a liberal art. (Like this former president of Missouri State just did.) Science is a liberal art. Period.

This is not a purely academic exercise to establish that science is a liberal art. This really matters.

If you take a look at the historical idea of what constitutes the liberal arts (based on how education and scholarship has been done in Western societies (yes, the concept of the liberal arts is steeped in Eurocentrism), it’s about studying foundational knowledge, rather than the application of this knowledge to a particular craft. The liberal arts are about understanding the world.

If you just want to appeal to authority, then ask Harvard. They’ll tell you the liberal arts are “the social sciences, natural sciences, and the humanities.” If the collected wisdom of Wikipedia is how you roll (which is a useful fountain of historical information in this case), then yup, the sciences are definitely liberal arts. They were liberal arts before the humanities were!

What are not the liberal arts? Fields which are designed to apply the liberal arts to more pragmatic domains. As wikipedia puts it, what falls under “professional, vocational, or technical” curricula.

Philosophy is a liberal art. Law is not.

Biology is a liberal art. Medicine is not.

Physics is a liberal art. Engineering is not.

Sociology is a liberal art. Criminal justice is not.

Psychology is a liberal art. Counseling is not.

Education is a liberal art. Teaching is not.

Literature is a liberal art. Journalism is not.

(I ‘s’pose some folks might quibble about some of the things that are not.)

So many folks are contrasting the liberal arts with STEM. When you see a decline in humanities majors, people say that STEM is taking the place of liberal arts. I say BAH, that’s a load of crap. I don’t care if you got a BA or a BS degree, if you were a biology major or a physics major or a chemistry major or a math major, then you were a liberal arts major. You were studying how the world works, working for a basic understanding of nature and humanity.

When people try to marginalize STEM from the liberal arts, what they’re trying to do is paint STEM education as vocational training. In a country where college educated people are preventing their children from getting vaccinated and avoid buying transgenic food because they think those genes somehow make the food unsafe, we need to embrace science as a liberal art. I’m not fond of calling it scientific “literacy” because that makes it sounds like you just need to memorize a bunch of stuff to understand science, but we do need a scientifically competent public. Understanding how science works shouldn’t be thought of as an applied skill, but a basic part of knowledge.

You’re probably already going there with this line of thinking — but of course I need to point out that it goes both ways. Scientists can’t be acting like what we do is fundamentally distinct from what happens in the humanities and social sciences. We’ve all seen the problems that can happen when some scientists and science-minded types go off the rails and ignore history, sociology, and philosophy. As Abraham Lincoln once said on the internet, “Science asks, ‘Can we do this?’ while the humanities ask, ‘Should we do this?'” This framing happens when we divorce science from the liberal arts. All scientists need to be asking “should we?” and under the umbrella of the liberal arts, we do.

Oh and do you have a PhD in science? That means you’re a Doctor of Philosophy. That’s why JDs and MDs and DPTs and EdDs such are different degrees than PhDs. If you’re training PhD students, you’re not doing vocational training — you’re not training people in careers to become professors. You’re developing scholars.

If you slice up STEM into S&M and T&E, then half of STEM is the liberal arts. And then there’s STEAM, and STREAM (ugh, I know). If you’re buying into these acronyms, then most of STREAM is the liberal arts. Yes, science and the humanities often have different needs in terms of space, equipment, funding, personnel, and such, but we what we all do is important and we all need one another. And we need to learn from one another. Please stop walling the liberal arts away from the sciences. We already have enough wall crap to deal with at the moment.

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