Science and the Liberal Arts

An Exposé Reprint

The Harvard Crimson, May 26, 2010

What does it mean for science to be an integral part of a liberal-arts education? How does understanding science productively complement the ability to read Shakespeare closely or to dissect a painter’s artistic intent? Part of the answer rests on the intellectual value of tackling a wide range of problems, hence gaining broad facility with ideas drawn from many fields. Problems are infamously disrespectful of boundaries, and thus solutions often demand openness to the approaches and lessons learned from seemingly disparate fields. To focus one’s intellectual passion is clearly worthwhile, but to do so with blinders on is to risk a narrowness of perspective that becomes limiting later on. It is this appreciation of breadth and the intellectual flexibility that comes with it that first attracted

me to a liberal-arts education—first as a student and then as a faculty member. Today, the teaching of science in a liberal-arts setting is a continued source of excitement and inspiration.

It is the teaching of science to a freshman audience that is particularly fulfilling and at the same time challenging—partly because my colleagues and I don’t subscribe to the long-standing notion that one should teach one kind of science to future science concentrators and another to future non-science concentrators. In the freshman year we believe that all students should have access to a meaningful introduction to science—one that prepares future science concentrators to take further coursework, but also one that gives future non-science concentrators a solid ground to understand a wide range of issues related to the sciences. In other words, future poets, artists, lawyers, and politicians deserve a genuine introduction to science the same way that future scientists deserve genuine engagement with Heidegger. Science therefore thrives in a liberal-arts context, and all of the other fields are enriched by its presence.

Let’s consider an example drawn from the realm of public health. Science may explore the molecular details of how a virus like HIV spreads, uncover how HIV causes disease, and even design drugs that inhibit its replication. However, it is through the social sciences that we discover how human behavior and cultural norms help shape the HIV epidemic, and it

is the arts and humanities that produce some of the most vivid reflections of the personal and societal toll of AIDS for future generations to consider. Coming to terms with and embracing this multiplicity of perspectives provides us with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the HIV epidemic as a scientific problem, a societal challenge, and a profound human tragedy. The liberal arts give us the means to wrap our arms and minds around such complex challenges, strengthening our intellectual prowess while stoking a collective hope that we will find solutions.

Although interdisciplinary thinking can drive productive and broad discourse between, say, the sciences and the humanities, what of the insights gained at the interface of different fields within the domain of the natural sciences? The mining of such productive friction is a hallmark of science today. Cell biologists collaborate with engineers to understand how physical forces shape developing tissues. Chemists collaborate with biologists to unlock the remarkable chemistry used by microbes to degrade environmental toxins. And computer scientists collaborate with structural biologists to harness the properties of biological macromolecules to re-imagine the computer chip. So why is it that the experience of interdisciplinarity is far too often delayed until the late stages of an undergraduate career? The traditional wisdom at colleges across the country is that understanding the productive interface between scientific disciplines first requires full tool boxes from each of the fields, tool boxes that are packed

during the freshman and sophomore years. Then, if you make it to the upper level science courses, light dawns, and you are ushered into 21st century science, complete with its porous boundaries between fields. Unfortunately, however, far too many students never make it to the dawn.

Introducing undergraduates to an interdisciplinary perspective on science is often positioned as antagonistic to delving deeply into the concepts and methods of individual fields, which perhaps explains why the latter so often precedes the former in traditional curricula. This antagonism is a fallacy, and is one that threatens to narrow the pipeline of students engaged in science as we delay their exposure to the way so many scientists operate today. In 2004, colleagues from all the life-science departments got together to address this and other challenges related to the teaching of science at Harvard. The outcome of our deliberations was an interdisciplinary freshman foundation of life-sciences courses that now serves a cluster of nine concentrations, counts toward general education requirements and enrolls almost 40 percent of the freshman class. Since the interdisciplinary courses were launched in 2005, the number of life sciences concentrators has also increased by more than 30 percent.

Interdisciplinarity does not replace deep and detailed engagement with individual fields; rather, it provides freshmen with an engaging context that motivates the in-depth pursuit of a

particular science. Thus, not only does science belong as an integral part of a liberal-arts curriculum, but the fundamental principles of the liberal-arts approach are fully convergent with the interdisciplinary teaching of science. It is time we stopped viewing science as simply one of several specialized plug-ins that go into a liberal-arts curriculum and focused instead on the benefits of integrative thinking both within the natural sciences and between the other fields represented at Harvard. It is time we liberated science within the liberal arts.

© 2011 The Harvard Crimson, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


For more than 20 years, Exposé has annually showcased outstanding essays written by students in Harvard’s first-year course in the Harvard College Writing Program. All students are required to take “Expos,” a tradition since 1872. Expos asks students to work intensively with their teachers on the skill of writing thoughtful arguments that respond to challenging ideas, complex debates, and puzzling social phenomena.