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Math and Science Study Alone Will Not Make Students More Competitive

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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.

Cross-posted from the Houston Chronicle