By Laura Vosejpka
Kettering University, National Academy of Sciences
These days it is not hard to find an article singing the praises of the Liberal Arts major working in the technology world. Ever since Steve Jobs gave his famous speech at the launch of iPad 2 in March 2011 - you know the one where he said: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing” - the popular press has been full of articles with titles like Engineers Need the Liberal Arts Too and STEM Fields Benefit from Liberal Arts Skills. (The second title refers to an AAC&U Study that states that Liberal Arts majors earn more after 10 years in the workforce than their pre-professional counterparts.)
Who can argue with Steve Jobs? He got it done. Consider Pixar – the company, the campus, the movies - the perfect example of his marriage of the two cultures of art and technology.
This discussion of the “rebirth” of the value proposition of the Liberal Arts always makes me smile. As a dual major in chemistry and literature, with training in ballet and painting mixed in for good measure, I do not have to be convinced of the value of both science and the arts. I have lived this dual life since I fell in love with the poetry and paintings of William Blake – and the Diels Alder cycloaddition reaction - on the same day no less. I always felt a little smug about it all – as if I alone understood the value of the two together. “They might be discussing the value of sprinkling a little liberal arts on the STEM curriculum, but I understand how inextricably intertwined they really are.”
In March of 2016, I was fortunate to be invited to T-Summit 2016 in Washington D.C. There I learned that I was definitely not alone. It was two days packed with discussions of transformational approaches to engineering education, curriculum design, interdisciplinary learning, and holistic problem solving. Boundary crossing competencies and collaboration across the disciplines was a recurring theme and it was at the T Summit that I realized that I had found my tribe. And my tribe was larger and more global than I had ever known.
What is truly astonishing is that I had only seen the mere surface of a very real, very huge movement. A movement by faculty in all areas of STEM and the arts and humanities to bridge the two cultures – to integrate robust humanities and arts into highly structured STEM curricula, to combine current technologies and scientific advancements into the arts curricula, to highlight and merge the critical thinking skills used in the humanities with the scientific method, to reconsider what it means to be human – really human. This movement is everywhere. We are in community colleges and in R1 universities. We are in medical schools and in music schools. We are in liberal arts colleges and in engineering schools. We are inviting our students to join us on a journey that is unscripted, messy, interdisciplinary, exciting, challenging, and that has no right answer (which can be scary for the engineers!). It is a journey that has at its core the following question. “What does it mean to be human? What is the value of being human?”
It is a true grass roots movement: natural, spontaneous, bottom-up, self-organized. Individual scientists, physicians, and engineers willing to take the system of carefully prescribed STEM curricula and shake it up. People like Amy Banzaert, who started the engineering We-Lab at Wellesley College and who created an introductory engineering curriculum in a true Liberal Arts college, allowing her students to bring technology to international households in need. And Rita Charon, who directs the narrative medicine program at Columbia University, guiding physicians to an understanding of the importance of storytelling to their practice. And people like me, who re-write the age old organic chemistry curriculum to incorporate an interdisciplinary deep dive into the history and culture behind the rise of the organic dye industry.
We are out there. And we are doing this thing we do – integrating STEM and arts and humanities (you should have seen the beautiful dye works my students created). But why? Why do we do this thing we do?
If you ask us, the answer that you will get is some form of the following: I do this because it is the right thing to do. I do this because it is in my blood. I do this because these are my passions.
In other words, it is internal, basic, and gut level.
Following your gut level instinct is valuable – more valuable that we often give it credit. But is that enough reason to do this? The education system, especially the higher education system, is pretty well thought through and it seems to work. The siloing of disciplines, the staffing of departments with research experts in narrow fields of inquiry. The curriculum that dives deeply into specific academic disciplines, one at a time. That curriculum has been around for a while. And it works, right? All of the scientific societies abide by it. My discipline, chemistry, has the whole curriculum mapped right out for us: step after step after step....
Although I write and paint and dance, by training I am a scientist. I measure things. That’s what we do in science, we measure stuff. We ask a question, we answer the question and then we design experiments to test the answer to that question. And our experiments have to involve measuring something. We generate data. We look for relationships and patterns in that data. So if the question is “Why should we integrate education in STEM with humanities and arts?” the answer has to be “Because that is better.” But what does ‘better’ mean? And, more importantly, how do you measure "better?"
The thing about academicians, and particularly academicians who are all about pedagogy, is that we don’t change things up without a truly compelling reason. We make decisions about what we do in our classrooms and how we do it based on what is best for our students. And some of us, the rogues who don’t worry too much about what “they” say, and who already have tenure, are willing to make big sweeping changes if we believe that it will result in something better for our students.
But still there remained that nagging question: how do I know that what I am doing is better? How am I measuring better? Am I just kidding myself about all of this? It is flying in the face of the traditional university. And in that respect it is educational sacrilege.
Or is it?
I just returned from a two week-long tour of Italy, which I was fortunate to take with my college aged, math major son. As we explored art gallery after art gallery, church after church, we also stumbled upon a gem of a collection in Florence called Museo Galileo – The Galileo Museum. It is billed as a science museum, but it is so much more. It is an art gallery. And a culture gallery. And a technology gallery. And a social gallery. Just as the statues and paintings in the Uffizi Gallery reflect the values, people, events and cultural ideals of the time, so do the telescopes and microscopes and maps in the Museo Galileo. Galileo’s personal telescope is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen – and he used it to discover some of the most important things we know about the universe. The measuring tools used by mathematicians are as beautiful as they are functional – lovingly created by artists and craftsmen who clearly saw value in the tool for both its form and its function. And as I saw all these I had my answer. I really did.
It has always been just one thing. Education, life, the human experience. It is just one thing. We have imposed this split value system on education. We have separated the disciplines from each other and in that separation we have lost a little bit of what it means to be human. When teachers like me “integrate,” we are not being innovative. We are actually reclaiming the roots of the educational mission.
When did we separate science and arts? And why?
I don’t know when it happened. My historian friends might point to the Manahattan Project. Or Sputnik. Maybe as early as the Industrial Revolution. Maybe even earlier, as both Germany and France set up their university systems in the 1800s. As I considered this question, I thought back to the project my organic chemistry students did on the German dye industry. When did dye move from being a valued commodity, worthy of just being, to being an industrial commodity with a value associated only with what it could accomplish? Indigo, the plant and the material, used to have value in and of itself. It was a thing of beauty on its own, in fact is some cultures it was used as currency! But in the late 1800s indigo lost its inherent value and became something that only had value for what it could do. Galileo’s beautiful telescope has value as an object of art. But it also has a scientific function – it is technology. Today’s telescopes are different – it isn’t that they are not beautiful – but they are not built to be objects of art. They are built solely for function, and treated as such.
Why indeed, did we separate science and the arts?
The Liberal Arts have a rich tradition – they are, by definition, what a person should know and be able to do to participate in free society. Arts Liberalis – what you do to be worthy of freedom. In fact Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, writes that a Liberal Arts education offers a promise of freedom and the best preparation for an unpredictable, fast changing world:
“The development of the capacities for critical inquiry associated with liberal learning can be enormously practical because they become resources on which to draw for continual learning, for making decisions in one’s life, and for making a difference in the world. Given the pace of technological and social change, it no longer makes sense to devote four years of higher education entirely to specific skills. Being ready on DAY ONE, may have sounded nice on the campaign trail, but being able to draw on one’s education over a lifetime is much more practical (and precious). Post secondary education should help students to discover what they love to do, to get better at it, and to develop the ability to continue learning so that they become agents of change — not victims of it.”
Liberal learning is art and science. And also social science, literature, history, language, music, and philosophy. It is based on the desire to cultivate habits of mind that are both creative and disciplined. These habits of mind do not have to be separated by academic discipline – in fact they are best understood when applied in an integrative, multidisciplinary context.
Leonardo da Vinci understood this. His art conveys his scientific vision. He was as at home in the studio as he was in the workroom: painting and building, creating and engineering.
Harvard Medical School understands this. Their first year medical students engage in drama, dance, and literature studies. They spend time in art galleries, learning new ways of seeing. And the data shows that the students who complete the Training the Eye program have a 38% increase in patient observations compared to the control group.
Olin College of Engineering understands this. Their students take courses like The Stuff of History, where engineering students have the chance to learn materials science within the context of the history and development of those materials. Paul Revere was the ultimate material scientist-artist, crafting extraordinary silver pieces that were both beautiful and functional.
Kettering University, my current institution, understands this. This engineering school has an art gallery that is hosting a show centered on the Flint Water Crisis. Gretchen Pruett’s work features watercolor paintings based on the MRI data of the bones and brains of lead poisoned Flint residents.
I feel fortunate to have the chance to explore this idea of integration with a group of business, industry, and academic experts in conjunction with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Our ad hoc committee, overseen by the Board on Higher Education and Workforce, is working to produce a consensus report that examines the evidence behind the assertion that educational programs that mutually integrate learning experiences in the humanities and arts with science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) lead to improved educational and career outcomes for undergraduate and graduate students.
And as I continue on my personal quest to collect and analyze evidence for the benefits associated with these experiences, I feel comforted that I am not the only one who had this gut level instinct. I share this with Galileo, with da Vinci, with Michelangelo, with Goethe, with Audubon and so many others – pretty amazing company really! Even Cicero understood the benefits of integration. In the 1st century B.C. he wrote:
“Etenim omnes artes quae ad humanitatem pertinent habent quoddam commune vinculum et quasi cognatione quadam inter se continentur.”
"To be sure, all arts which are relevant to human culture have a certain common bond, and are connected, one to another, by a sort of, as it were, kindred relationship."
And he spoke to the value of a liberal education:
“Haec studia adolescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.”
"These studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity; they delight us when we are at home without hindering us in the wider world, and are with us at night, when we travel and when we visit the countryside".
If that is not a benefit, then I do not know what is.....
Laura Vosejpka is the founding Dean of the College of Sciences and Liberal Arts at Kettering University (former GMI) in Flint, Michigan. A passionate advocate for liberal arts education, Laura was a dual major