May 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

COLUMNS

The value of liberal arts

As an engineer by discipline and by trade, my colleagues will playfully ostracize me for making this argument, but I believe it is a necessary one.

With graduation season upon us, liberal arts students are constantly being questioned with the universal irritant; “What will you do with your degree?”

The turn of the century has seen the emergence of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in higher education, pushing the humanities into a significant downfall. The government and media remain focused on the immediate contributions to our highly technological society that is plausible for scientists and engineers. Simultaneously, they give a skeptical look towards those pursuing humanities. To many, philosophy and sociology majors are wasting their time following a path that leads to no applicable skills. This misguided perspective is particularly influential in our current economic state as we struggle for instant and tangible results right out of college.

The battle about the legitimacy of the humanities is a modern one. When Plato and Aristotle were influencing Western philosophy, the sciences and the humanities were one in the same. Many ancient Greek philosophers were conversant scientists and mathematicians. It is only in our post-industrial capitalistic society that a distinction between hard science and the liberal arts has materialized. The reverence to these fields emanates from their usefulness in producing the products, systems, and designs that are coveted by society. Simply put, these majors fit comfortably into our existing collective.

With the rising costs of higher education in the United States, American students find themselves forced to choose a major with immediate and tangible benefits. As such, a liberal arts education is reclassified as impractical and a luxury for the wealthy. Quite contrarily, there is a deep relationship between the humanities and the functioning of society, one which those calling the liberal arts an extravagance conveniently ignore. Our democratic government requires its citizens to have a sufficient political and social understanding to elect officials in an educated and intelligent manner. The rational and systematic science curriculum is inadequate at accomplishing this. Furthermore, science alone cannot resolve the cultural and religious disputes around the world. It would be futile to address the territorial conflicts in the Middle East without first having a thorough understanding of how such contention formed. After September 11, the demand for specialists in Islam and Arabic snowballed overnight. The research and training done in the humanities to meet this call took place over years of liberal arts scholarship. With the United States establishing stronger relationships with regions such as Brazil and Pakistan, our humanists must be competent and ready for the challenge.

I am not denouncing the importance of science and engineering; in actuality, I am bringing to attention the need for these fields to co-exist with the social sciences and humanities. The ties between the sciences and the liberal arts are more profound than people realize. Higher education is rightfully multifaceted; the best work in academia is done with scientists and humanists working together. The fight for the worth of the humanities will continue, at least in the near future, if society fails to realize the intangible benefits of the liberal arts.

Ravi P. Sharma is a Ph.D. student in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan.