Nick Hagerty '10
The Liberal Sciences
The original version of this piece appeared in the Brown Daily Herald 1/29/09 Columns section.
What are liberal arts? Many Brown students might respond: literature, languages, history, philosophy, political science and anthropology. (Economics is typically disqualified because it is thought to guarantee its concentrators future housing conditions better than those of a refrigerator carton.) Math and science are of course in an entirely separate category.
This would be quite a shock to students of the first Western universities, those in Europe during the Middle Ages. Their "artes liberales" consisted of the trivium - grammar, rhetoric and logic - and the quadrivium - geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. Yes, fully half of the original liberal arts were what is now known as math and science.
Curricula have evolved, entire social science disciplines have sprung up, and arithmetic is now taught to elementary school children. But even in our time, the liberal arts are commonly considered the opposite of pre-professional education. A liberal arts education involves studying a range of fields not for their immediate relevance to job placement, but for the intrinsic appeal of learning and the development of general intellectual capabilities.
After all, most people work in jobs unrelated to their undergraduate major. In the long term, the abilities to think critically, analyze, communicate, adapt and learn independently are more conducive to career success than the memorization of a narrow body of knowledge that will be obsolete in 10 or 20 years.
These attributes are easily recognizable in disciplines like English, art history and sociology. It is therefore frustrating when science and engineering concentrators at Brown look down upon, or refuse to take courses in, the supposedly too-soft fields that comprise the humanities and social sciences.
But more widespread than chemistry concentrators who never dabble in the humanities (over four years, a difficult feat!) are international relations or literary arts concentrators who declare math and science irrelevant to their academic lives, vowing that high school was the last time they would ever take a math or science course. Somehow it is more politically correct at Brown to ignore the sciences altogether than to permanently stay cooped up in Barus and Holley and the CIT.
This attitude is disappointing and misguided. The natural sciences and mathematics are not only absolutely relevant to a liberal arts education but equally valuable as subjects more concerned with human creations.
For one thing, the natural sciences at an undergraduate level are almost as impractical professionally as humanities and social sciences. Sixteen courses hardly make an expert, so there are few jobs in which science concentrators are qualified to directly apply their particular discipline without extensive graduate work.
Just as medical schools do not require a biology concentration, not all biology concentrators plan to become doctors. Interest in, for example, the coevolution of Mesozoic reptiles and ferns is as immediately useless as the works of Cervantes or Foucault, and potentially as rewarding.
More important than the particular subject under study - much of which students will forget within a few years - are the quantitative reasoning, logical analysis, abstract thinking and problem-solving skills learned through math and other sciences. It's no coincidence that Wall Street was the largest employer of theoretical physicists in the 1990s.
But the knowledge and intuition gained in science courses is immensely useful in everyday life. The more science you know, the more often you can answer yourself when you think, "I wonder why?" You can more easily understand medical treatments and new technologies.
A basic grasp of science is also crucial for effective participation in democracy. A surprising number of political issues, from stem cells to climate change, require extensive scientific knowledge for a truly informed vote. The halls of Congress overflow with lawyers, but we sorely need leaders and policymakers with scientific sensibilities.
More romantically, the natural sciences are the purest expression of intellectual curiosity. Since antiquity they have aspired to explain our surrounding universe, from the wondrously intricate workings of our own bodies to the origins and motion of celestial bodies millions of light-years away. The humanities may ponder the human condition, but only the natural sciences can place it in a meaningful context.
So if you are a humanities or social science concentrator who hasn't taken a course in science or math since high school, try one! If you don't remember much biology, take BIOL0200: "The Foundations of Living Systems." If you have some calculus background, look into PHYS0160: "Introduction to Relativity and Quantum Physics." For something new, try GEOL0010: "Face of the Earth." Even psychology or cognitive science courses can work if you want.
If you are worried about the difficulty, that's precisely what S/NC is for.
Nick Hagerty '10 is a biological physics and economics major from Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at nicholas_hagerty (at) brown.edu.