Why the Liberal Arts Need the Sciences (and Vice Versa)

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

November 13, 2011

There is no question that liberal-arts education in the 21st century needs to re-examine both its definition and its scope. While many people assume that the humanities are firmly and solely centered at its core, many others ask: Is that still the case? How would liberal-arts education look if science played a more prominent role?

At a recent symposium at Boston College's Institute for the Liberal Arts, a panel of experts from the sciences and the liberal arts explained, from their perspectives, why science matters at a liberal-arts university.

Their arguments seem beyond dispute: It matters because knowledge of science is necessary for an understanding of global warming and species extinction, of the causes and history of human violence, of the ways in which humans alter the natural course of evolution, of the ways in which technology and digital media shape our access to information and to each other, of how technology informs our decisions and influences public policy, of the misleading use of statistics, and of our access to big questions about the nature and origins of the universe.

The most important answer to the question, however, is simply this: Science matters at a liberal-arts university because the problems facing our global community will not be solved by scientists alone.

A common theme throughout the symposium was the need for more scientists to better communicate the importance of "big science" and the implications of its findings to the public. For example, while the significance of using public funds to support research to understand the causes of neurodegenerative diseases is obvious to most Americans, using public funds to support the study of quantum string theory might not be; while an issue as complex as global climate change needs scientists to identify its root causes, it also needs faculty members in the humanities and social sciences to evaluate its impact on human populations and societies, and journalists to communicate this information to the wider public.

In our environmentally and economically challenged, highly technological world, it is crucial that we improve our ability to understand and critically evaluate scientific evidence and arguments. One way to do so is through partnerships between faculty in the natural sciences and faculty from disciplines like journalism, economics, sociology, political science, and philosophy. Together they can develop ways to communicate knowledge about technology and the sciences in an accessible and compelling manner, and to explain the broader relevance of scientific discovery to society. How can we encourage these partnerships? We can start by removing a few key barriers:

  • The barriers to cooperation, one of which is the real—or sometimes imaginary—competition for our universities' available resources. Faculty in the humanities often resent the amount of money allocated to big science and let that resentment keep them from cooperating with colleagues who have laboratories. The natural sciences also feel threatened, with highly competitive financial support subject to the vagaries of the economy, and the percentage of projects approved for funds dropping into the low teens and single digits.
  • The barriers of time, which include efforts to balance teaching, research, and the imperative to publish with service to the university. In the case of the sciences, there are the additional responsibilities of managing complex labs and preparing proposals to gain private and governmental support. Those obligations can keep faculty members from talking to one another, much less to their colleagues in other departments.
  • The barriers of individual disciplines, which encourage faculty to be insular, preferring to talk to people who speak the same disciplinary language. Contemporary cultural theory and philosophy sometimes question scientific positivism in ways that can be off-putting to scientists. Sometimes professors in the humanities and social sciences feel that it's their job—not the job of those in the natural sciences—to teach students about evidence, argument, and the evaluation of information. Some may even fear that these bodies of knowledge will be superseded by science, engineering, and technology, since it often seems that contemporary culture, even within the academy, values science more.

These barriers are counterproductive. We must focus less on what divides us and more on our commonalities, like our shared commitment to careful and rigorous analysis of evidence, and our presumably common desire to see public discourse about important issues, like climate change, the economy, evolution, and even the nature of the universe, carried out in a more responsible way.

We also share a dedication to the education of our students, who will form the educated public of tomorrow. It's up to us to ensure that they receive a liberal-arts education that provides them with the skills to critically evaluate information content, its sources, and its relevance. And while the discussion, reading, and thought that are the hallmarks of the humanities are necessary preludes to effective action, students of the liberal arts will be ill-equipped to deal with our complex world without a firm grounding in statistics, computer science, knowledge of the scientific method, and technological literacy.

The political crisis surrounding the financing of education and scientific research has placed in jeopardy this country's future as a leader in science and technology. These problems cannot be solved by scientists and educators alone, but will require an informed public that can, in turn, influence public policy. We need to train our students to make responsible and ethical decisions based on their evaluation of scientific evidence. We need to motivate them to act—to go beyond discussion and to identify solutions to preserve and sustain the planet for future generations.

If faculty in the humanities and the sciences let our differences divide us, we will end up like Congress, so polarized that we fail both the planet and our students.

We must agree to do better than that.

Mary Crane is the Rattigan professor of English at Boston College and director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts. Thomas Chiles is chairman of the biology department at Boston College.