STEM+Liberal Arts

Gosh, @UMMorris ought to just plaster this article by Loretta Jackson-Hayes everywhere, mailing it out to the parents of prospective students. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training, she says. Yes, we do. I agree with every point she makes. Well, except maybe the part where she mentions Carly Fiorina as a good example. But the rest…

Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. Leonardo’s curiosity and passion for painting, writing, engineering and biology helped him triumph in both art and science; his study of anatomy and dissections of corpses enabled his incredible drawings of the human figure. When introducing the iPad 2, Jobs, who dropped out of college but continued to audit calligraphy classes, declared: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” (Indeed, one of Apple’s scientists, Steve Perlman, was inspired to invent the QuickTime multimedia program by an episode of “Star Trek.”)

Many in government and business publicly question the value of such an education. Yet employers in every sector continue to scoop up my students because of their ability to apply cross-disciplinary thinking to an incredibly complex world. They like my chemistry grads because not only can they find their way around a laboratory, but they’re also nimble thinkers who know to consider chemistry’s impact on society and the environment. Some medical schools have also caught on to this. The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has been admitting an increasing number of applicants with backgrounds in the humanities for the past 20 years. “It doesn’t make you a better doctor to know how fast a mass falls from a tree,” Gail Morris, head of the school’s admissions, told Newsweek. “We need whole people.”

By all means, let’s grow our STEM graduates as aggressively as possible. But let’s make sure they also have that all-important grounding in the liberal arts. We can have both.

Now we just have to persuade the non-STEM side of campus that grounding their students in a little more science and math would be a good thing, and we can take over the world.


  1. Bill Buckner says

    Now we just have to persuade the non-STEM side of campus that grounding their students in a little more science and math would be a good thing, and we can take over the world.

    Bingo. At my liberal arts school I have not heard any complaining from the STEM side that our students take too much writing, history, foreign language, etc. I have heard enormous whining over the fact that english majors (for example) have to take 6 hours of math and 7 hours (2 classes, one lab) of science.

  2. says

    There was a Guardian editorial about a month ago calling for this very thing, while pointing out that a peculiarly high number of terrorists, Al Quaeda leaders and extremists have formal education in the applied sciences, including
    To this we might add many leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, including Xi Jinping, and the noted civil engineer, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. About 70% of jihadis have been to college (which makes them far more educated than the average American), and over 40% of them, the plurality, have a STEM degree; under 20% have degrees in Islamic Studies or theology.

    The association of people in engineering and medicine with wingnut ideologies has of course been noted by others before.

  3. Zeppelin says

    “Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs”, really? That’s like “Claude Monet and Thomas Kinkade”.

  4. anat says

    sigaba, but did said holders of engineering degrees take any/some courses in the humanities? Because if their respective universities had some requirements in the humanities then all we have is evidence that such requirements are not going to save graduates from bad thinking.

  5. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says


    Sorry I should have edited that better, I’m on the train.

    You’d probably have an easier time of it if you got into the train.

    Frankly, as much as I understand an appreciate the need for increasingly narrow focus as people become more deeply involved in a subject, I believe that everyone would benefit from a broad base of knowledge and experience. Not just STEM & liberal arts (although quickly wiki-ing ‘liberal arts’ to quickly remind myself of the bounds of it, it seems to be… everything) but anything and everything. Maybe not the things that bore you, but certainly everything that interests you, at least to a conversational level.
    Of course, I realise that access to the resources required to develop that breadth of knowledge is still restricted, and only a few have the free time required to engage with them even if they have access, but I think that’s just another reason to push for and support more sites and services like Coursera and the Open University, and against economic inequality. (I promise, this statement is entirely unrelated to any American politicians who may or may not be running for the presidency at this moment.)

  6. robro says

    Bill Buckneer @ #1

    I have not heard any complaining from the STEM side that our students take too much writing, history, foreign language, etc.

    Really? When I was in college, I heard plenty of complaints from STEM students…this was before it was known as “STEM” mind you…about waisting their time taking literature, languages, and history. I’ve heard it since from my son who is in the STEM category.

  7. Bill Buckner says

    robro #7,

    Really? When I was in college, I heard plenty of complaints from STEM students…

    Sorry, I thought it was clear when I referred to “our students” that I was speaking from a faculty perspective. I have not heard STEM faculty complain that our students take too much writing, history, etc. I have heard (numerous times) from non-STEM faculty that their students should not have to take so much math/science.

    No doubt many/most STEM students complain about taking so much writing, etc. But that’s what students do. Complain. It’s their birthright.

  8. says

    @8 @anat

    A lot of these people graduate from western universities. Western/US/European universities all have humanities requirements but do they have enough?

    Here’s the actual link.

    The point the article makes isn’t that people necessarily need to pick up journaling or film criticism or Spanish, but that an effort needs to be made to give people the tools they need to question authority and to accept diversity in opinion and belief, and engineering specifically doesn’t really seem to do this. If you’re a racist or you hate people from the Other religion, and your obsessed over wether or not playing chess with a menstruating woman is a sin*, the exclusive study of math and applied science is never going to challenge your attitudes on these things (it might even help). They’re totally orthogonal and compatible to any worldview.

    People who are attracted to pure sciences don’t seem to have the same problem, because pure sciences do a much better job of teaching anti-authoritarianism and an ethic of constant skepticism and questioning.

    *Points to Matt Taibbi for this.

  9. pentatomid says


    Yeah, that has been my experience too ( I’m in a STEM field myself, being a biologist). A disturbing amount of people in STEM fields are extremely dismissive of art, history, philosophy in particular, as well as the social sciences, which they often won’t consider ‘real’ science (yet at the same time, many of these same people do take Evo Psych way too seriously).

  10. says

    Key quote:

    His report draws on a range of academic studies and a British intelligence dossier that describes the ideal recruit as “intelligent and curious, but unquestioning of authority”.

    The culture of science teaching, says Rose, resolves all too easily into a right and wrong, correct and incorrect binary. This damages the ability of science and engineering students to develop the skills of critical examination. It is not a phenomenon confined to foreign universities, he suggests, pointing to reports of the growing appeal of creationism for some British Muslim medical students.

  11. pentatomid says

    No doubt many/most STEM students complain about taking so much writing, etc. But that’s what students do. Complain. It’s their birthright.

    I can’t speak for robro, but I do actually know professional scientists in STEM fields, including phd students, post-docs and professors who make similar complaints about pretty much all non-STEM subjects (with the possible exception of languages).

  12. consciousness razor says

    Zeppelin, maybe Jeff Koons is more apt than Thomas Kinkade. But either way, of course, there’s more than enough incongruity to go around.

    We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training, she says. Yes, we do.

    Is this supposed to mean to you that “We need more STEM majors, and they should have a liberal arts education” or “The STEM majors we have should have more of a liberal arts education”? I can see where the word “more” is placed in the sentence, but to be charitable, that may not imply anything about what’s intended. I don’t know about Jackson-Hayes, nor does the article make it clear, but I’m asking you, PZ.

    Would you be satisfied with a plan to aggressively grow the numbers of non-STEM graduates? It may not be a zero-sum game about who gets a bigger piece of the pie, since for one thing the pie doesn’t have a fixed size… but doesn’t it seem off that that choice is being construed as somebody else’s to make, other than the prospective students themselves?

    What if “we” non-scientists took over the world, while generously allowing you strange folk over there to solve your quaint little puzzles if you like? Perhaps even with some pay and if not quite equal treatment and respect, then at least recognition that you exist. Fuck, we’ll even toss in the offer of making ourselves better artists, which is all we care about, by learning a smattering of science in a few perfunctory classes, which of course is just a means to an end. What more could you want? Obviously, world domination like that wouldn’t be accomplished with things like technological innovations or our superior rates of employment (which seems to be a non-issue for STEM grads, making it an odd concern to even mention), but I’m sure there’d be something to brag about. Speaking of which, phones and printers, high-paying jobs, and so forth … not sure I get what that crap has to do with learning about the universe anyway.

  13. Vivec says

    In a multidisciplinary class on sex and gender I took, there was a biologist, neurologist, geneticist, sociologist, and evolutionary psychologist.

    Almost the entirety of the EvoPsych prof’s first lecture was “Sociology is a bullshit social science and should not be in this course”

  14. redwood says

    Although I majored in English in college, I’ve always liked science and math. In fact, when I was a sophomore in high school I took an Engineering Aptitude test. I didn’t do so well on the engineering part (88th percentile, I think), but I was in the 99th percentile in English. This prompted one letter, from Cornell, saying that they wanted me to attend their school because they wanted scientists/engineers who were good at communication. This was in 1970, so this idea isn’t new.

  15. Bill Buckner says

    I can’t speak for robro, but I do actually know professional scientists in STEM fields, including phd students, post-docs and professors who make similar complaints about pretty much all non-STEM subjects (with the possible exception of languages).

    Again, I’m referring to STEM faculty at a liberal arts college. We, on average, may be a different breed. On average we chose a liberal arts school recognizing the huge difference between an R1 and a liberal arts school for STEM education. So on average we do not resent that our students take heaping helpings of humanities. We view it as a feature, not a bug.

    Almost the entirety of the EvoPsych prof’s first lecture was “Sociology is a bullshit social science and should not be in this course”

    This is bizarre on two fronts. One is that an EvoPsych prof would not be sensitive about calling another discipline bullshit. The other is this: If any prof at our school, at least in this millenium, told a class that “Sociology is bullshit”, that prof would be called in on the carpet fast. At least to the chair and possibly to the dean.

  16. Vivec says

    Well, FWIW it was in a few more words and phrased more nicely.

    Something like “Sociology is wrong for thinking that gender roles and norms are anything but inherent psychological adaptations. It’s also not a real science, so I don’t understand why we’re even talking about it.” Or something to that effect.

    Said evopsych professor did later to go on and explain the “evolutionary reason” why women wear pink and why women have gay friends so they were a total crank regardless.

  17. whheydt says

    The idea definitely isn’t new. C. P. Snow wrote about it 1959 in The Two Cultures.

    Back when rocks were soft (later half of the 1950s) at Berkeley as an EECS student, we were required to take a “2 quarter sequence in the umanities”. The list included English 1A, 1B and several others. What I took from the list was one quareter of Physical Anthropology and one quarter of Archaeology–and I still draw on some of what I got from those sources. They also led to a chance at a first hand, up close, demonstration of flint and obsidian chipping from the man who redeveloped the techniques (Francois Bordes) because I knew the people he usually stayed with when he visited the Bay Area.

    The engineering students tended to refer to anything less “hard” (e.g. Physics or Chemistry) as “fuzzy studies”.

    Now one thing that was very interesting. The “hard sciences” tended to have “non-major” courses deliberately aimed at Liberal Arts students. Even the College of Engineering had such a course (Engineering 2, Contemporary Technology, which was a very light weight survey course). Engineering majors were strongly discouraged from taking the course, proably to keep from scaring the Liberal Arts students away. (When, on a lark, I took Astronomy 10–a non-major course intended for those without much of any science background–the instructor and TAs, after wondering what the heck I was doing there, did their level best to prevent me from asking questions that would require them to show any actual math…because the rest of class didn’t have enough math to follow any of it). On the other side of the divide under discussion, the Liberal Arts departments did NOT have “non-major” courses. English 1A and 1B, for instance were required, major, courses for English majors. This was true, so far as I recall, across the board. On the STEM side, there was one partial exception, which was the Chemistry department, where the department head–Nobel Laureate George Pimentel–beleived that if you took a Chem course, you should actually be taught Chemistry, and that everyone who took Chemistry was a potential Chem major. Still, there was a lecture demonstration course for the *really* “science phobic” called Contemporary Natural Science that included some Chem.

    So…if the Liberal Arts departments want STEM students to take their courses, how aout meeting the other side half way and offer some no major courses

  18. iknklast says

    As someone who combines STEM with liberal arts, I definitely agree. My life is richer for the liberal arts background, and my prose is better in explaining things to lay people.

  19. says

    There’s a largely unspoken pitfall here: we need good professors.

    I’m hard STEM – comp sci degree, tech professional – but also a writer and artist. I get far more joy from the latter than the former, and they inform each other. I’m all for this… but there is a serious danger that the way a lot of intro arts courses are handled that they will stifle rather than encourage a love of arts.

    The idea of “requirements” winds up being a bit itchy by itself, and then things are presented that way top to bottom – THOU SHALT take English Lit 101, THOU SHALT read these books that normally nobody* would choose to, THOU SHALT describe thy analyses in THIS way and THIS way and THOU SHALT arrive at My conclusions, or thou shalt fail.

    I don’t for a moment assume this is anywhere near a universal experience, but it was the kind of thing I encountered over and over again in high school and university. All the possible joy and interest sucked clean out by no choice, rote repetitions, and no attempt at all to connect with the students. I actually had one lit professor who not only read things in a boring monotone, but had not even bothered to bring in enough required texts to the bookstore, and when I couldn’t get access to the reading material shrugged and said that was my problem. It won’t surprise anyone to know I immediately dropped that course and never went back to him or indeed his topics. He and his predecessors taught me to view literature as suspicious bullshit that exists for no reason other than to make professor types feel superior – obviously, OBVIOUSLY this is not true, and I grew out of that opinion long ago, but that is still what they instilled in me.

    By contrast, I replaced that course with a drama one instead. I was never a fan of the essays, but that’s just student grumbling – THIS course had a professor who loved the art and loved teaching, and used to get so excited she would jump up on the furniture reading passages. It was amazing, and wound up being part of the reason that to this day I love reading and writing screenplays.

    I can’t speak to this personally, since as a natural STEM-head I always found those topics interesting, but I would be shocked if there weren’t legions of arts folk who could pull out the same The Professor Helped Me Hate It story about rote-memorization science or math courses.

    To get well-rounded people who understand both art and science, you have to instill a love for both in them. Presenting a topic as basic regurgitation can never do that, and leads to the same mistakes I once made that are common among modern STEMlords – that sciences are real and important, and arts are either fluff or elitist garbage.

    What am I advocating here… I am not sure. Professors don’t have it easy, even the ones who start with a genuine love and passion for what they do can have it whittled out. They can’t be held entirely responsible for what students think… but they certainly affect it. Funny. I had teachers and professors right from kindergarten teaching me HOW to dissect a story, but to this day, nobody ever tried to teach me WHY. I had to learn that on my own, years and years later.


    * in your peer group or demographic, or that you have ever met who ISN’T a professor

  20. sugarfrosted says

    Not gonna lie, I don’t get why STEM is a category. Perhaps if you restricted to applied math perhaps it would make sense, but I consider myself to be more in the “liberal arts” than in a category with bloody engineers and I’m a math grad student. I almost feel like we tricked government officials who know nothing beyond calculus and basic linear algebra exist. I’m sorry, I just resent the STEM label.

  21. says

    @22 sugarfrosted

    My only knowledge of the term “STEM” is in the context of politicians militating against a new “Sputnik crisis” or some such, usually with the Chinese as the adversary.

    There are also a lot of people who want to conflate medicine with hard science and engineering, because the projected labor market demand for medicine and life sciences people over the projected supply is astronomical, even when compared the the STE professions, where demand is high in particular fields, but so is supply.

    There are also a lot of dorks out there who watch TED talks, and think all of the world’s problems can be solved by Big Data, smartphone apps, and robots that can smile.

  22. HolyPinkUnicorn says

    @sugarfrosted #22

    Yeah, I thought “liberal arts” covered basically all four year undergraduate degrees, as opposed to technical training or vocational degrees. I suspect some people so despise the word liberal they don’t even want it to taint their degree, or simply use it as a pejorative against the perceived evils of the progressive stereotype of American universities.

    Personally I hate how the Internet bandwagon of late has been to scorn non-STEM degrees; the disdain for the humanities is foolhardy in an era when the media has become more a tool of propaganda than factual information, whether it’s STEM related or not. For example, It can be depressing to learn how little people care or know about history as it relates to, say, foreign policy or civil rights, particularly when they also dismiss the humanities as useless and won’t land people a job.

    And this is what I see as the real problem with the education system; that it’s not about creating informed, rational citizens who can think for themselves, much less move the country forward. Instead, it’s about creating docile laborers and consumers, who fear for their job security and end up working more hours for fewer benefits and protections than afforded by workers in other industrialized countries.

    Ultimately this is the carrot I’ve heard way too many people use to try and push for more STEM students, that it’ll simply get them a job–assuming we don’t selectively “reform” immigration to suit the cheap labor dreams of tech companies first–not that it’s good for the country or that it’s even something in which they have a genuine interest or talent.

  23. Rob says

    The engineering students tended to refer to anything less “hard” (e.g. Physics or Chemistry) as “fuzzy studies”.

    Snort. I’ve been subjected to that point of view before. Having originally trained as a chemist, and having tutored labs for ChemEng, the only thing fuzzy was the average ChemEng undergraduates grasp of scientific method, laboratory safety and the English language. The arrogant and dismissive attitude displayed by so many in the class not at all helped by the class composition being 90% white and 98% male with no understanding of anything at all beyond engineering and mathematics.

  24. chris61 says

    This may not be a problem currently but back when I was in university (70s) the issue was scheduling. At my uni anyway science majors spent their mornings in classes and their afternoons in labs. We didn’t have room in our schedules for non-science courses.

  25. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    At my uni anyway science majors spent their mornings in classes and their afternoons in labs. We didn’t have room in our schedules for non-science courses.

    No problem where I went. The college I was in at Enormous State University required courses in English, Social Sciences, Logic (mathematics/philosophy), and Sciences. Ended up needing a Rocks for Jocks geology course my senior year to graduate. Fun, literally, and it has all come into play once I graduated.

  26. magistramarla says

    My husband is an engineer with a very solid liberal arts background. He can write very well and has a strong background in languages (partly because he took Latin and ancient Greek to impress me, the Classical Languages major).
    He’s always been the guy in his office who is tapped to write up research and it has led to some interesting trips for him.
    When our oldest daughter chose to go into STEM, we both encouraged her to not ignore the liberal arts part of her education. It has served her well that she is articulate as well as well as scientifically-minded.
    I enjoy the daytime cooking shows, and I greatly admire Mario Batali. When asked if he had encouraged his sons to follow him into culinary arts, he said that he encouraged them to specialize in anything of their choosing, but only after getting a good liberal arts education first.
    As an educator, I wish that more parents thought like this.

  27. Rob says

    Chris61 @26

    This may not be a problem currently but back when I was in university (70s) the issue was scheduling. At my uni anyway science majors spent their mornings in classes and their afternoons in labs. We didn’t have room in our schedules for non-science courses.

    That was certainly an impediment at my University in the 80’s. In fact even some science course were hard to take together. For example, the geochemistry course (through Geology Dept) I wanted to take at Stage 3 conflicted with the Analytical Chemistry course I needed to take through the Chemistry Dept. both departments head could see that my choice was perfectly sensible, they simply lacked the ability to change the timetable. I had tried adding arts courses (history and classics) at Stage 1, but that had simply been impossible, both because of timetable clashes and sheer workload once all the prerequisite and corequisite science/math/stats course I had to take were added up.

    I think it’s a great idea frankly. My thesis supervisor devised a course some years later “Chemistry for Art Majors’ that I tutored. It was very well received for the two years I was involved but I’m not sure it survived his retirement.

  28. johnmarley says

    In my freshman English Lit class, a student asked why, as an Engineering student, he needed to take English. The professor’s response was “Because this is not a trade school.”

  29. consciousness razor says

    This may not be a problem currently but back when I was in university (70s) the issue was scheduling. At my uni anyway science majors spent their mornings in classes and their afternoons in labs. We didn’t have room in our schedules for non-science courses.

    I studied music at a liberal arts university. I earned AP credits at my high school for a few classes, which helped reduce my workload somewhat. On the other hand, not knowing what I wanted to do freshman year didn’t help (math and physics were also near the top of the list), and I also flirted with getting a minor here and there, so in the end it took me five years to get a bachelor’s. In any case, my schedule as a music student, like every other music student, was very full, morning, noon and night.

    I don’t remember much time reserved for sleeping, because there weren’t just classes during the polite hours of the day with time for lunch in between. There were also rehearsals (for several ensembles each semester), practice time (for all orchestral instruments, not just my primary instrument), additional classes/performances/rehearsals in the evenings and over the weekends, occasionally traveling for performances, conferences, etc. Time for studying/homework took up nearly all of the rest. I also continued the routine throughout the summer all of those years, once at separate university (although it wasn’t so heavy in the summer, because many ensembles weren’t playing then).

    But this was at a liberal arts school, not a music conservatory, so I also took intro courses for biology, chemistry and so forth (with lab time), as well as various non-sciencey classes like literature, foreign language, history, philosophy, etc. So maybe I had a problem with scheduling, but the university certainly didn’t seem to think so, and it nevertheless did happen somehow.

  30. Rob says

    Johnmarley, I had a large number of my ChemEng students ask exactly that question when I downgraded them for producing illegible lab books. they simply could not understand that one day they would have to write notes and reports for both colleagues and clients that would have to be intelligible. I now work in a specialist engineering consultancy (the irony) and we still have to beat English into new graduates for the first three or four years (this in an English speaking country).

  31. johnmarley says

    @Rob (#32)

    I didn’t mention that this was Honors English. This guy clearly thought that just by qualifying for the class, he had validated his skills. Essays were partially group graded. Each student was randomly given three (maybe four) papers from other students (names redacted) to read and critique. I don’t know if I got any of his, but judging by the ones I did get, he was mistaken.

  32. whheydt says

    On the point of “why English for Engineers”? I don’t suppose anyone suggested that the English department ever considered a course in Scientific and Engineering writing? The styles are rather different from that of–say–English Lit. There would be, probably, a rather serious problem finding someone in the English department that could competently *teach* such a course, but that just points up the problem.

    My general experience is that the science and engineering people readily agree that the arts have their place and deserve study. I have had much more difficulty finding people from the liberal arts who think that knowledge of science and engineering (and the math that goes with) have comparable value. (And that, by the way, is part of C. P. Snow’s point from 60 years ago. Not much has changed.)

    Another data point… At Berkeley in the late 1960s, there were two CS majors. One was in the College of Letters and Science (the largest college on that university campus, by far) that amounted to a math major with a minor in computers. The other was part of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department of the College of Engineering. Both majors supposedly had a comparable set of courses. One occasionally heard of an EECS student taking a CS course, but one *never* saw a CS student in an EECS course. The EECS courses had a reputation of being much harder, despite the assumed equivalence. In a way, this is easy to understand. The first programming course in CS taught ALGOL in 9 weeks. The first EECS course (Engineering 1, required for all Engineering students) taught ALGOL and FORTRAN in 9 weeks.

  33. chigau (違う) says

    Why would “Scientific and Engineering writing” in English be any different from writing any other How-To-Manual in English?
    We’ve all been to IKEA.

  34. says

    I second @chigau. If you can write cogently and persuasively, getting the style issues down is usually something you can master pretty quickly. You can’t pick up a competent writing style in a seminar though, it’s a skill you develop over your entire life.

    My general experience is that the science and engineering people readily agree that the arts have their place and deserve study. I have had much more difficulty finding people from the liberal arts who think that knowledge of science and engineering (and the math that goes with) have comparable value.

    Hmm, comparable value is a slippery term here. We can say liberal arts, and the hard sciences, are comparable in their way, but it risks a false equivalency, the ability to write, and compose an argument in writing, is universal to just about all academics. When a physicist wants to document and communicate the outcome of an experiment, wether he’s Steven Weinberg or Galileo, he’s going to do it with writing. When Dr. Myers wants to present results to a symposium, or tell people about the latest indignity of MRAs, he’s going to do it with writing. Skill in writing is a concern that is prior to, and mediates, all the arts and sciences. Our knowledge of the natural world, and our ability to pass this knowledge on to the next generation, is only as good as our ability to write about it.

  35. richardgadsden says

    Western/US/European universities all have humanities requirements

    No, they really really don’t.

    Here are the classes for a Physics degree at my alma mater:

    Year 1:

    Required courses:

    Electricity and Magnetism
    Measurement and Uncertainty
    Professional Skills (first year seminars)
    Physics Laboratory I
    Physics Project
    Quantum Physics
    Structure of Matter
    Vibrations and Waves

    Optional (select one from three):

    Language module (eight offered)
    Mathematical Analysis I

    Year 2:


    Nuclear and Particle Physics I
    Physics Laboratory II
    Professional Skills II
    Quantum Mechanics
    Solid State Physics I
    Statistics of Measurement
    Statistical Physics

    Optional (one from the four):

    Environmental Physics
    Language module (eight offered)
    Mathematical Methods II (T)
    Sun, Stars and Planets

    Year 3:


    Light and Matter
    Comprehensive Physics (tutorial-based)
    Physics of the Universe
    Physics Laboratory III
    Physics Project
    Professional Skills III
    Fluid Dynamics

    Optional (select four):

    Advanced Classical Physics
    Communicating Physics
    Computational Physics
    Complexity and Networks
    Foundations of Quantum Mechanics
    Group Theory
    Imaging & Biophotonics (half-unit)
    Lasers (half-unit)
    Medical Imaging: X-Rays & Ultrasound (half-unit)
    Medcial Imaging: Nuclear Diagnostics & MRI (half-unit)
    Principles of Instrumentation
    Statistical Mechanics
    Plasma Physics
    Humanities or Business School options

    This is a degree in physics from a British university.

    Most of the students will have dropped all humanities subjects at 16 – they need to pass English, either History or Geography and a foreign language at GCSE (ie at 16) to get the EBacc they need for entry, and for most of them they will have dropped everything bar that bare minimum at 14 in order to concentrate on science and maths.

  36. cartomancer says


    Indeed. The British model, certainly, is one where specialisation is the norm, usually at 16 and certainly by 18 when University starts. I myself dropped all sciences at 16, continued with History, Philosophy, English Language, Geography and Law to A-level, then did my undergraduate degree in Ancient and Modern History. There are one or two exceptions, and joint honours degrees let you do half each of two subjects, but this whole debate is not an issue here. The idea that someone doing a degree in History or Classics or Law would have required work to do on physics or Russian or sociology seems quaint here.

    And yet… we don’t seem to have this debate you’re having either. There is no entrenched culture of disdain between the sciences and the humanities, and outside of formal studies a lot of British students and academics will have at least a vague interest in the other side of the divide. I wonder if that’s not a better approach – encourage wide interests outside of formal education, with opportunities to indulge them. Indeed, I think a general awareness of the range and richness of human learning is an important thing, but I struggle to see all that many direct applications of unrelated fields in formal learning. For instance, I know that there’s a lot of science behind many of the techniques of Archaeology, which is a useful contributor to history and classics, but knowing exactly how the radiometric dating works from a physics perspective, while interesting in itself, isn’t actually helpful once you’ve got the dating estimates at the other end and are trying to work out what light they shed on late Republican culture. There are fields where genuine interdisciplinary exchange is profitable and fruitful between the sciences and the humanities, but I think it’s clear that there are others where it is of limited value, and interdisciplinary exchange with other sciences or other humanities are far more useful and revealing. A student of classical literature will have a far more profitable interaction with the study of French or English Literature, for instance, than with Chemistry or Maths.

    The value of being aware of very different disciplines is not, primarily, a value in terms of direct benefit to one’s primary discipline. If we take that as the key argument in its favour then we are reinforcing the implicit assumption that one’s primary discipline is all that matters. I think the greatest benefit comes in creating rounded human beings more capable of dealing with the world and appreciating aspects of society beyond the narrow confines of academia. A little more science in the culture helps to improve the public understanding of climate change or fracking practices for instance, which is valuable and necessary. A little history helps us understand the political issues in Northern Ireland better, and so on.

    It also seems to me that because the American system is fragmented in this way, the business of teaching sciences students how to write is often fobbed off on someone else. That’s certainly the impression I get from these discussions. Over here it seems science tutors regard that as an essential skill that is their responsibility to impart, and do so in a holistic fashion as they teach the actual science. Likewise, in the humanities we never have any formal “writing history” lessons, we just pick it up naturally from reading the writing of historians and writing essay after essay after essay ourselves. The knowledge and the expression of it are rarely compartmentalised, much less with the two compartments entrusted to completely different sets of people. And if there are useful thought processes, approaches, methods and techniques found in other disciplines that can be of great help to students of one, then surely those processes, approaches etc. actually are an important part of that discipline, and ought to be taught as a valued and integral part of it rather than as an optional extra that might be gained somewhere else? If comupter science can be very helpful to conducting chemistry experiments then surely it is just as much a part of chemistry? It seems to me that when the teachers know they can’t rely on other people to provide exposure to useful methods and thought processes for their students, they make the effort to provide that exposure themselves. Or they should, at any rate.

  37. Derek Vandivere says

    #37 / Richard:

    Indeed. In fact, I was chatting to a colleague on the metro last week, and I mentioned how great it was that the school I went to required taking a lot of classes out of the engineering college. In fact, I remember my courses in Shakespeare, Medieval Romance Lit, and history a lot more than, say, graduate-level inventory management theory.

    She looked at me in some shock (she went to one of the leading Dutch technical schools, I went to Cornell) and said she was glad she didn’t have to take any non-technical classes. I almost got the feeling that she pitied me for having an education and not just a training.

  38. says


    I think your ed system does you a disservice, but this also seems to correspond with the findings of the Guardian @9.

  39. chigau (違う) says

    Too much specialisation leads to engineers who think that men have one fewer ribs than women and medical doctors who think that space aliens built the pyramids.

  40. Thumper says

    So I googled liberal arts, since it’s not a term we use in Britain, and have discovered that the distinction doesn’t even make sense.

    The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberalis, “worthy of a free person”)[1] to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were the core liberal arts, while arithmetic, geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy also played a (somewhat lesser) part in education.

    This seems to include a mixture of science and non-science subjects. So where did this idea that Liberal Arts are the non-STEM fields come from?