Sunday, January 08, 2006

Commonalities Between Science And The Liberal Arts

There's a really good article over at the NYT about how colleges and universities are trying to come to a consensus regarding material that all students should know. Here's really the essence of the issue:
But in the end the committee couldn't come to an agreement. "If you've got a background in literature, say, it's very easy to solve the problem of general education - until you talk to the people in the sciences, and vice versa," says Benedict H. Gross, a mathematician who is also the dean of Harvard College and was a co-chairman of the general education committee. "Some people on the faculty had very specific lists of things they thought were essential to the curriculum, but these lists just didn't intersect. Try it at home. It's a good dinner party game - to see if you can agree on a brief list of things students need to know."
That's completely accurate and, at the same time, completely wrong. People seem to assume that there's an unavoidable and sharp disconnect between the sciences and the liberal art, but that can't possibly be true. I'm trained on the science side of things; if there were really a fundamental disconnect between science and the liberal arts I shouldn't even be able to follow the argument that the NYT was making in the article. The apparent division between the two domains is mainly the result of not digging deep enough. So let's play the party game, and see if we can come up with something that's useful to students in the sciences and students in the liberal arts. Just to make things fun I'm going to toss in another dichotomy: theory vs. applied. I'm really familiar with that one; the head of the department I studied under when I was in college was worried that if he allowed anything applied to sneak into the curriculum we'd be no better than ITT or DeVry. So we have four profiles for types of students:
  • Applied science: Like me, this type of student probably went into industry after college. Since I went to a college that was heavy on theory I had to learn applied skills on the job. But this is true of someone who had a heavy practical education, since practical skills learned in college become outdated and need to be periodically refreshed.
  • Theoretical science: This would mostly seem to cover people who go to grad school. Based on what my friends who went to grad school have done it seems that this type of student spends a lot of time doing research.
  • Applied liberal arts: These guys are all over the map; a lot of the liberal arts majors that I know went into fields that have absolutely nothing to do with what they studied.
  • Theoretical liberal arts: Some of these go to grad school; I assume they do research, but I've no firsthand knowledge of how this research compares to that performed by a theoretical scientist. Presumably there's more "paper" work since the many subjects in the liberal arts don't yield as readily to empirical analysis. The rest of the theoretical liberal arts majors I've know have followed the path of their applied brethren.
So what, if any, commonalities can we find in the tasks which all of these people need to accomplish in the workplace1 once they move on from college? The most obvious item is that all of them need to continue to teach themselves after they graduate. In the case of applied sciences/applied liberal arts they often have to learn new skills immediately upon graduation or shortly thereafter. Those who go on to grad school have to continue to refine and expand what they know with only minimal direction. So it would seem that equipping students for "meta-learning" should be a big component of any core curriculum. I was also going to suggest that the ability to construct and analyze arguments is critical, but on reflection I'm not so sure about this. I've had a lot of jobs which involved nothing in the way of advanced synthesis or analysis. Ditto problem-solving; we'd all like to be able to formulate an approach to a problem and then solve it, but I've had a lot of jobs where I didn't do a whole lot of that either. However, if colleges and universities want their graduates to have interesting, fulfilling jobs then they should focus on these aspects as well. I'd follow this further, but its late and I'm tired. Maybe another time.
1 College should be about more than just prepping for employment, but its nevertheless a major consideration.

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