Science as a liberal art

Photo by Julie Bidwell

As a scientist by training and the president of one of the country’s top liberal arts colleges, I am equal parts bemused and frustrated that I so often hear people declare that the liberal arts are dead and STEM (that is, study focused on science, technology, engineering, and math) is the future.

STEM and the liberal arts are not mutually exclusive. In fact, at Trinity, STEM is very much at the core of the liberal arts education we provide. And that education is both grounded in history and never more relevant for our world.

One marketing challenge for liberal arts colleges like ours is the lack of a consistent definition for the liberal arts and, therefore, misunderstanding about what and how we teach. Many think of the liberal arts as a specific set of subjects, and some see those subjects as limited to the arts, humanities, and (maybe) the social sciences. And some, unfortunately, see the “liberal” in liberal arts as indicative of a political ideology or agenda.

None of these is how we think about the liberal arts. Instead, it’s a liberal education that we provide—and that is not about political beliefs. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) defines a liberal education as “an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with a broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest.” Such an education, the AACU continues, “helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”

Sound familiar? It should. That’s the education Trinity has been providing for nearly 200 years. And we’re fortunate that we provide that classic liberal arts education in a diverse, dynamic capital city and that we offer a number of distinctive interdisciplinary programs such as neuroscience, public policy and law, and human rights. We also are one of just a few small liberal arts colleges with an accredited engineering program.

All of which lends real-world relevance to our approach to education. We understand our purpose to be helping to advance that world through the knowledge we create, the communities we nurture, and the differences made by the lives of generations of our graduates.

So, I’m especially delighted by the feature story in this issue on our outstanding Interdisciplinary Science Program (ISP), a jewel that has set a new standard for innovative academic programs for incoming students, connecting scientific disciplines to the external world and providing valuable mentorship and research opportunities for students. Over the years since ISP launched, Trinity has built an incredible community and network of ISP students, alumni, and faculty, and they are ISP’s best proof points. Case in point: a terrific letter to the editor, published recently in The Hartford Courant, about the benefits of studying STEM in a liberal arts context. Its co-authors were Trinity engineering alumna Shakira Ramos Crespo ’02 and Alison J. Draper, director of Trinity’s Science Center.

“At Trinity College,” they wrote, “there is a proud history of embedding STEM majors in the liberal arts in order to produce scientists and engineers who are not only equipped with the necessary technical and content knowledge but who also have the broader vision, foundation of lifelong learning, creativity, and flexibility to be leaders in the future STEM workforce.”

I myself am grateful for my liberal arts degree in science.