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The Case for Liberal Sciences

The reputation for Liberal Arts education is almost unshakable. Studying various topics such as Humanities, Philosophy, Languages, and Communication, this type of education is lauded for the diverse and free thinking individuals it produces. By enabling the students to see the interconnectedness of the various disciplines, engage in lively discourse, and feel free to learn for the sake of it, the products of the Liberal Arts Education are well rounded, interesting, and capable of doing all sorts of things with their lives. After all, they learned how to learn.

Cool. That sounds amazing, right? No one does the Liberal Arts Education better than St. John's College in Annapolis, they read all the great books and get their information directly from the source. The discussions they must have there as they layer on the views and ideas of the great thinkers must be tremendous. Taking a broad slice of the world's events and thinking, then seeing how that has shaped us as cultures really does broaden one's perspective.

But what about the STEM subjects? Why don't they get the same treatment?

I wish I knew. While the Liberal Arts folks are busy pulling things in from all over the place to help their students understand interconnectedness, overlap, and perspective, STEM fields seem to be getting even more and vertically aligned. The majors are more specific than ever, and the interplay between science, engineering, medicine, mathematics, seems to be less and less.

I heard a story once, it's about a veterinarian who was putting rods in horses necks to stabilize their necks. So this Vet is at a party, talking about how he drills these holes into the wings of the vertebrae and then hammers the rods in. It's very successful, provided that the vertebrae don't shatter because of the pounding. An engineer, listening to this story, says- Why don't you use a screw? Using the screw has made this procedure much more predictable, and lots of better outcomes have resulted from that conversation.

This interconnectedness of ideas, technologies, and thought processes is where the advances of the future lie. So why are we persisting with this vertically integrated model of how to study the STEM fields? What we really need is Liberal Science, a broad study of all of the STEM fields to bring cross topic thinking, develop better communication, creativity, and insight to the important challenges we face today.

Right now, many STEM fields lack discourse at all. Where do the Engineers and Scientists learn to communicate? They don't, not really. Not in the same way lawyers and politicians do. Is it any wonder we have so many problems with the clash of our laws and our technology as we do?

And- newsflash- once you get out of college, not every problem has an "answer". Not everything has an equation, not everything winds up in a neat "X=42" kind of way. While we can borrow from the Liberal Arts and have them study philosophy, they also need to learn to handle these types of challenges, weigh possible courses of action, see how everything works together, because they have a broader perspective brought from studying not just Physics, but also Bio-mechanics, Strength of Materials, Neuro- science, biology, economics, computer science, Civil Engineering, etc. Looking at problems from multiple perspectives enriches our potential solutions, and promotes the types creativity, communication, and conversation required to solve our modern problems.

Because, while the world needs the specialist to be a reservoir for very specific knowledge, and a clear, pure view of their specialty, the world also needs the -sadly, underrated- generalist. The person with the piles of knowledge of all kinds that links things together in new ways from across the channels. Remember Ghostbusters? To solve big problems, you have to cross the streams!

We need Liberal Science, so we can solve big, complex problems.

If you are part of a college or university and would like to discuss this at greater length, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

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