STEM Study Starts With Liberal Arts

Aug 6, 2015 by


Chris Teare –

Much has been made, especially by the Return on Investment crowd, of the value of undergraduate study in the so-called STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Lost in the conversation is the way the true liberal arts underpin such study, often because the liberal arts are inaccurately equated solely with the humanities. From the start, the liberal arts included math and science, something I learned firsthand at St. John’s College.

This topic is especially on my mind since reading the excellent article George Anders has written for Forbes: “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket” In this context, understanding the actual origin and purposes of the liberal arts is all the more valuable.

The St. John’s College Latin seal reads, Facio Liberos Ex Liberis Libris Libraque, which means, “I make free adults out of children by means of books and a balance.” As the College’s materials explain, “In the center, seven open books represent the seven traditional liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, which in turn surround the scale, representing modern science.” Don’t just take their words for it; here are my own:

Having enjoyed all the sprinkles on the donut of my Amherst College years—playing football, lacrosse, and beer pong, while singing in the glee club, working at the radio station, and serving as a residence advisor, all rather than focusing most of my energies on my studies—I knew I had a hole where a coherent course of study could have been. After three years of secondary school teaching, coaching and counseling, I watched Bill Moyers interview Mortimer Adler, then read Adler’s Philosopher At Large, where I first learned about St. John’s College.

(I also read Eric Sevareid’s Not So Wild A Dream and chose first to study journalism at Columbia University and work in television news for a time instead, but that’s another post.)

In the summer of 1987, I enrolled in the Graduate Institute in Liberal Education at the original St. John’s campus in Annapolis, Maryland. I started on familiar ground by reading the segment on Literature, beginning with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, then marching through centuries of Great Books, with delightful stops such as for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and an enlightening—though to me repetitive—read through four of Jane Austen’s novels. The following summer I read Politics and Society, with more Plato and Aristotle paving the way for Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and other giants of political discourse. Not much here was completely new to me; however, I actually did all the reading this time and thus learned more.

The summer that changed my education and is too often lost in the STEM discussion that inaccurately conflates liberal arts with humanities was when I read Mathematics and Natural Science. There for the first time I saw, then followed, Euclid’s geometric proof that “A squared plus B squared equals C squared.” Having taken Advanced Placement Calculus in high school and a semester of Calculus in college, I had long heard and used the algebraic formula; however, I had never seen it proven in two-dimensional reality. Recovering English major that I am to this day, I was thrilled by what St. John’s taught me about the fuller possibilities of mathematics, (though I freely admit that I still don’t understand how Lobachevski can say parallel lines meet).

Still more, we read William Harvey’s On The Circulation of the Blood. A contemporary of Shakespeare, Harvey was the first to demonstrate that mammals have a circulatory system, overthrowing the one-way notions held by the ancients. When I not only read Harvey, but then got up from the seminar, walked to adjacent lab table, and took a wire coat hanger and twisted it to “flow” through the ventricles of a sheep heart, I saw anatomic/scientific reality in a way I never had before. It was thrilling and remains a highlight of my many years of education.

These two examples from a summer of many insights only touch upon what those who truly understand the liberal arts grasp: that math and science have always been at the center of such study and are indeed embedded in the foundation of STEM. Parents sometimes worry that the liberal arts may not prepare their children for the job market, but they do so based upon a misunderstanding. When I applied to Amherst 40 years ago, someone told me that a liberal arts education was “training for nothing but preparation for everything.” It still is.

Source: STEM Study Starts With Liberal Arts

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