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Science students need the liberal arts

How the liberal arts made me better at mathematics.


The precarious state of liberal arts education at many universities is well known. Enrolments are down and consequently the relevance of a liberal arts education is under fire. Those in liberal arts education have tried to make the case that a liberal arts education matters.

The main thrust of these arguments is that liberal arts education inspires critical thinking, problem-solving ability and communication skills and that it broadens worldviews – all these are touted as highly desirable skills according to many employers. Yet, for many critics, these arguments have not been altogether convincing. Students, too, are questioning the relevance of a liberal arts education, seen in the alarming decline in enrolment across many institutions.

The defence of the liberal arts education has predominantly been made by those in the liberal arts. For the most part, students’ voices have been remarkably silent. Perhaps graduates of the liberal arts have a difficult time articulating the value-added proposition of their education. Indeed, the experts have struggled to make a convincing case, so why should students of the liberal arts be any different? Without question, some intentionality in highlighting the relevance to students taking liberal arts degrees and even taking courses is necessary. A strategy to do so is clearly needed.

My undergraduate degree is in mathematics. Consequently, the majority of my undergraduate courses were in mathematics, with the exception of five courses of my own choosing in the liberal arts. In the midst of calculus and more calculus, I studied the history of India, the conceptions of males and females in the West, the history of women in Canada, communication and the media and, to round things off, an introductory course in French!

These opportunities introduced me to the idea of culturally mediated mathematics, the gendered discourse of mathematics, the ways in which mathematics is manipulated in the media, and the role of language in shaping even our understanding of numbers. My mathematics courses taught me about numbers, but it was the liberal arts courses that enabled me to engage critically with and about the numbers, and with others.

It was my liberal arts professors that wanted to know what I was thinking and it was they who invited me for the first time to think independently and outside my comfort zone. This is not to suggest that my mathematics professors were not interested in my thinking. The thinking was simply different, in ways that mattered most to me in terms of my future ability to work in and beyond my discipline – something I didn’t recognize at the time. Perhaps the relevance of the liberal arts is a retrospective view for others, too.

It was the liberal arts courses that taught me how to communicate and how to write. They taught me about people and how to engage with diverse peoples when engaging in what was presented to me as “neutral” problem-solving in mathematics. I learned through my liberal arts education that “neutral” does not exist.

Engaging solely in problem-solving through my mathematics courses would have been insufficient: the nuances of effective and productive problem-solving would have eluded me without my liberal arts education alerting me to competing world views. My liberal arts education, albeit limited, made me better at problem-solving in mathematics.

The courses I took in liberal arts during my undergraduate degree were “electives.” Likely, these courses were viewed as “service teaching” by the department that offered them. I am not the only person in the sciences and other disciplines who has benefited from liberal arts electives or service teaching.

Science students and others continue to draw on the liberal arts to give shape and humanistic substance to their discipline-specific studies. Many non-liberal arts degrees have a liberal arts core or substructure – accidentally or intentionally – yet acknowledgment of the fundamental relationship remains unrecognized. There is power in acknowledging the significant extent to which the liberal arts education, through service and elective courses, shape the thinking of engineers, mathematicians, biologists and so forth.

True enough, the mathematics courses were the direct pipeline to my chosen vocation. But the liberal arts courses were the water that helped me flow through that pipeline and that continue to keep me flowing. The sciences and other disciplines must also advocate for and acknowledge the complementary and essential nature of liberal arts education for their students. While studying calculus, geometry and algebra was fun and stimulating, the relevance of studying these topics only came to life for me through the liberal arts, and I believe that my experiences are not uncommon.

Dr. Kotsopoulos is acting associate vice-president, research, at Wilfrid Laurier University and associate professor in the faculty of education and faculty of science (department of mathematics.)


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  1. Andrew Gow / June 10, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    Thank you! Now, it would be great if something like this appeared in the Globe and Mail — perhaps opposite a piece by Margaret Wente…

  2. David Struthers / June 15, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy and mathematics are all part of a “liberal arts” education. The article seems to imply that the “liberal arts” are related only to how we humans organize ourselves socially, culturally and economically. A liberal education needs to include all of this.

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