Semora Smith

For Discussion: Science and the Liberal Arts

Discussion created by Semora Smith on Jan 31, 2017
Latest reply on Dec 6, 2018 by Steven Cooke

Science and the Liberal Arts

Submitted for discussion by Don Clarke, Senior Chemists Committee Member


A traditional liberal arts education emphasizes the humanities, and many educational institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere have produced graduates who are illiterate in science. C. P. Snow, the British novelist and scientist, is famous for having commented on this topic. The following is from his 1959 Rede Lecture “The Two Cultures” (see


“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?


“I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.


In 2008, The Times Literary Supplement included The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in its list of the 100 books that most influenced Western public discourse since the Second
World War.More recently, there is an increasing emphasis on STEM (science, technology engineering and math) education, here and abroad, often leading to the exclusion of the humanities. Singapore has a reputation of adapting this latter approach. Steven Lynn Bernasek, dean of faculty and professor of science at Yale-NUS College in Singapore states that his college has not gone in that direction. For your information as well as to be an item of discussion, his consideration of the debate about liberal education versus STEM education follows.


Education in the liberal arts dates from the Greek and Roman times. From the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the medieval European quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy), the liberal arts model has always included the sciences, both formal (logic, arithmetic, geometry) and natural (astronomy). 

“All of these were the required basis for the study of the advanced topics of philosophy and theology, and were what was expected for a person to be considered educated. 

“As this style of education developed, especially in the United States, the range of topics identified as a part of the liberal arts and sciences curriculum expanded, but has always included the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences and formal sciences (such as logic, pure and applied mathematics, statistics and computation). The aim of this modern system of education in the liberal arts and sciences is a broadly and deeply educated individual, who will live life as an engaged global citizen.   

“In recent years, there has been an ongoing debate about liberal arts versus STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, with some in North America turning away from the liberal arts and sciences model in favor of highly specialized STEM degrees. Science is also sometimes considered to be a separate field from the liberal
arts. This view is not correct, historically or in current practice.


“The sciences are an integral part of the intellectual traditions that led to the modern liberal arts approach. The habits of mind leading to creativity and intellectual innovation in the sciences are no different from those in other fields. In addition to the joy one finds in understanding the natural and social world, scientific knowledge also has an impact on our ability to solve practical problems in the world, from issues related to health and the environment to problems of social and political organizations.


“At Yale-NUS College, a liberal arts college in Singapore, science is a basic component of our common curriculum – a linked set of courses taken by all students together. The flexibility of mind needed to embrace new ideas, new results and new situations is a key to the scientific method, so the study of science is particularly well suited to the liberal arts approach. This way of learning involves reading and evaluating what has been written about the physical world; being able to evaluate a quantitative argument; being comfortable with not knowing the answer but able to look for it effectively; and being able to solve a problem by posing the question well and using a broad suite of resources to address it.”


Above are some interesting points and counterpoints.  We are posting this article here with the thought that some readers may wish to contribute to a discussion. If interested, please post your comments.