Science, Ethics and Liberal Arts Education

I’ve recently had a series of talks with education officials, journalists and families about liberal arts education. There are international dimensions to these conversations that are exceptionally interesting to me, and I want to return to those in some future blog postings. Some of these discussions have concentrated on contrasts between a broad liberal arts education and a focused, technical study of STEM fields. This has struck me as odd because broad liberal learning also serves these fields so well. Today I am thinking about the ways in which the sciences are linked to the other liberal arts. In some contexts, people talk about the liberal arts and the sciences, as if biology and chemistry, physics and astronomy weren’t already part of the liberal arts. Even at Wesleyan there had been a tendency to make this two cultures mistake, which risks separating the sciences from our liberal arts mission. Regardless of which disciplines come to mind when we hear “liberal arts,” the fact is that almost all our science majors take classes in the social sciences, arts and humanities, and that there has been increasing interest among humanists, artists and social scientists in scientific research practices.

Many of our scientists have been interested in the intersection of their work with the broader community. Peter Patton, long-time faculty member in Earth and Environmental Sciences, recently led a field trip with students to study changes to some deep-rooted ecosystems in Puerto Rico. Last week biologist Janice Naegele spoke with a group of faculty from across the curriculum about her lab’s stem-cell work on brain seizures, and she also teaches classes that emphasize writing about science —   translating research into clear terms for the generally educated reader. Suzanne O’Connell, a scientist now directing our Service Learning Center, has a similar concern about the dissemination of research. You can tune in to her “Science on the Radio” class. And there are plenty of other science faculty I could mention in this regard, as well as students who are helping to teach science to youngsters in Middletown.

Wesleyan’s Science in Society Program is at the heart of our efforts to maintain robust interconnections between the sciences and all the other fields on campus. For example, for many years philosopher Joe Rouse (who heads the program) has explored how scientific legitimacy is achieved, and how specific disciplinary practices in the sciences create modes of understanding. Laura Stark, a sociologist who also teaches in the SiSP program, has just published Behind Closed Doors: IRNs and the Making of Ethical Research. Laura’s work explores how institutional review boards come to approve some experiments and not others, and how their criteria for decision making reflects conceptions of what it means to be human and to have rights. In history, Bill Johnston, Paul Erickson and Jennifer Tucker all connect the sciences to their cultural contexts, as does Gillian Goslinga in anthropology. Jill Morawski, another member of SiSP and a psychologist who has been directing the Center for the Humanities, has been linking the topics at CHUM with issues in the sciences that intersect with philosophy, history, gender studies and ethics. Speaking of ethics, philosopher Lori Gruen’s work in animal studies has been very much influenced by her team teaching over the years with scientists. She has been at the forefront of the university’s curricular development in ethics.

Last year I joined the board of the Hastings Center, a non-partisan research institution dedicated to bioethics and the public interest.  The president of the organization asked me to address the links between its mission in bioethics and the mission of universities and colleges dedicated to liberal arts education. The founders of the Hastings Center knew that science was too important to leave in the hands only of specialists, and over the years the staff has developed a robust research organization that connects advanced scientific work with ethical and policy issues. In a similar vein, I think it’s crucial that liberal arts colleges and universities ensure that higher education isn’t left in the hands only of specialists. We are connecting our schools to the worlds of public life, the economy and the broader culture. These connections will make for healthier and more successful scientific and educational institutions.

Here’s a link to my talk for Hastings:



Integrative Education: Working Across the Disciplines

This morning I published an op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle on the importance of integrating the sciences with the rest of the liberal arts. This particularly vital as we think about education as an investment in the future. This week I heard the great science studies scholar Bruno Latour talk at the Center for the Humanities about “modes of knowing” and “modes of existence”. Latour acknowledged more than once the work of Wes philosopher Joe Rouse, who has led our Science and Society Program with energy and distinction. I’ve been meeting recently with science faculty and with our wide range of scholars interested in science studies, and I am so impressed with the variety of ways in which Wesleyan connects these disciplines through project oriented teaching and research.

Here’s the op-ed:

We recently saw President Obama out on the West Coast emphasizing the importance of an education in the sciences and engineering to help America “win the future.” He visited Intel, met with executives from Apple and Facebook, and talked with high school teachers and students about going on to college so that they would have access to good jobs later in life. In a period when some of our representatives seem to think that governing means taking resources away from the neediest while giving breaks to the most advantaged, it was great to see the president making a case for investing in the future through education. I was almost delighted.

But why does Obama only talk about science and engineering as the ticket to a brighter future? Although the president has appointed people with strong liberal arts credentials to do everything from restructuring the automobile industry to figuring out how to develop sustainable health care systems, he has recently talked as if the only education that matters is a specialized focus on science and engineering. As Stanley Fish recently remarked in his New York Times blog: “It looks like the only way humanist educators and their students are going to get to the top is by hanging on to the coattails of their scientist and engineering friends as they go racing by.”

While West Coast techies were wowing the president, the Cambridge-based American Academy of Arts and Sciences announced the appointment of a panel to remind representatives in Washington of the importance of the social sciences and the humanities. “The humanities and social sciences provide the intellectual framework for the nation’s economic, political and governing institutions,” said the panel’s co-chair, Richard H. Brodhead, the president of Duke University. “They enrich our lives and our understanding. Americans already appreciate the importance of math and science to our future; this Commission will remind Americans of the long-term importance of the liberal arts as well.” Commission Co-chair John W. Rowe, the CEO of Exelon, added: “Knowledge of history, an understanding of civic institutions, the ability to use evidence and to think creatively, an aptitude for cross-cultural communication — these are all vital attributes of a 21st century citizen.” The panel is very impressive, and its task is an important one. I was almost delighted.

Why “almost delighted?” I would hope that our leaders in government, industry and academia would realize that they don’t have to make a choice between the sciences and the rest of the liberal arts. Indeed, the sciences are a vital part of the liberal arts. The key to our success in the future will be an integrative education that doesn’t isolate the sciences from other parts of the curriculum, and that doesn’t shield the so-called creative and interpretive fields from a vigorous understanding of the problems being addressed by scientists. For example, at liberal arts schools across the country there has been an increase in interest in the sciences from students who are also interested in history, political science, literature and the arts. Here at Wesleyan, neuroscience and behavior is our fastest growing major, and programs linking the sciences, arts and humanities have been areas of intense creative work. Last week we hosted a conference in the young field of Animal Studies, and throughout the semester one can find productive collaborations between social scientists, artists and biologists, dancers and physicists, and filmmakers and biochemists. These teams form not because the members are trying to be fashionably interdisciplinary. They come together to address specific problems or in pursuit of particular opportunities.

I would hope that President Obama’s advisers would realize that innovation in technology companies, automobile design, medicine or food production will not come only from isolated work in technical disciplines. I would also hope that the American Academy’s commission on the social sciences and the humanities would recognize that some of the most interesting work in these fields now involves the active participation of scientists. A pragmatic, broadly based education that encourages bold inquiry and regular self-reflection recognizes the increasingly porous borders among disciplines and departments.

I will be delighted when the vitality of problems-oriented, multidisciplinary research and teaching that is reinvigorating liberal arts schools grabs the attention of those promoting education as an investment in our society. When that happens, we can all have more confidence in the future of our schools and the country they serve.