Home » ForumSpring 2009

My Discipline’s Better Than Your Discipline

by Nancy Wise No Comment

Imagine if the definition of a liberal arts education were to change. What if one of its disciplines—the humanities, natural sciences or social sciences—were to be eliminated? Which one should it be? What if we forced the disciplines themselves to debate and prove each deserved to be taught?

jimfraiserThree College of Arts and Science professors took on the challenge of presenting the most convincing case for why their discipline is vital and valuable. David Jon Furbish, professor of Earth and environmental science, made the case for the natural sciences; John Geer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and interim department chair, championed the social sciences; and Tiffany R. Patterson, associate professor of African American and diaspora studies, upheld the humanities. 

Briefly, what does your discipline contribute to a liberal arts education, and indeed, society?

GEER: Social science lies at the heart of any university because it brings together the best of the humanities and the sciences to advance our understanding of important historical, social, economic and political trends. 

FURBISH: Science, by definition, navigates uncertainty. In turn, because knowledge generated by science so strongly influences the fabric of society—both directly and indirectly through technology and innovations—it makes sense to me that there is tremendous value in learning how science works. There’s also value in discovering how science approaches the issue of uncertainty in knowledge—as a lovely ingredient of scholarship, of lifelong learning, of communication, of making informed choices.

PATTERSON: The humanities approach knowledge by critically analyzing belief systems, culture, memory and imagination. An understanding of the past that created our present, the philosophical questions that informed struggles over values and cultural difference, and the literary and artistic texts that reflect our world are a necessary complement to the other disciplines.

“Learning how to think creatively is far more important than pursuing a narrow career. Careers, frankly, come and go.”

– John G. Geer

Why is that important? 

GEER: The goal of any liberal arts education is to help students become democratic citizens. The social sciences lie at the center of that effort. 

FURBISH: The natural sciences provide the foundation of technology and technological innovations. Science drives innovations in other fields, including engineering and medicine.

PATTERSON: The humanities provide us with the languages to communicate ideas, to insist upon understanding how human societies have expressed their values and how they solved, or failed to solve, social problems. The humanities also help us to avoid repeating many (if not all) mistakes of the past and to develop enlightened solutions to contemporary problems.

If you had to choose one of the other disciplines as most valuable, which would you choose and why?

GEER: Neither, we already encompass both in the social sciences. We have faculty who take the humanities seriously to advance our understanding, for example, of justice. At the same time, we have faculty who make use of the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience to understand better how personality shapes our social behavior. 

FURBISH: You can’t choose one discipline as more valuable. Together, they form a triad, a triangle. The triangle is mechanically the strongest geometrical construct. Load it, stress it, squeeze it, and a triangle is self-reinforcing, self-stabilizing.

You of course know of the underlying principles of the legislative–executive–judicial triad. You know of the simple beauty of the reinforcing tones—the harmony—of a musical triad. Shall I add here that our triangle is a self-reinforcing structure of a world-class education?

“No one discipline has a monopoly on all we need to know about the world.”

– Tiffany R. Patterson

PATTERSON: This is a false choice. Different types of intellectual activity are needed to solve modern problems and to envision a more productive future. No one discipline has a monopoly on all we need to know about the world. To ignore any of the disciplines is to be partially educated and deficient
in our thinking.

What would society look like if one of these disciplines (not necessarily yours) were removed?

GEER: In the long run, we need all three areas of inquiry. Not only do they advance our understanding of a vast array
of topics, ranging from history of art to how stars form, but these disciplines become more vibrant from cross-fertilization. Political science, for example, seeks to inform society about how our political system works, but it does so only after borrowing from related fields such as history, economics, anthropology or genetics. True discovery comes when you break outside of normal lines of inquiry, and that is really only possible with interdisciplinary work.

FURBISH: I agree. Increasingly, innovations aimed at addressing problems of critical societal importance are requiring the effective communication between the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, law, medicine and engineering.

PATTERSON: Society would be impoverished. Consider how much we’d lose without the advances in science and technology or how important economics is in addressing our current crisis. Knowledge of history and anthropology is crucial in a globalized world if we are to communicate effectively across cultural and religious differences. Language, philosophy and aesthetics enhance our ability to understand a complicated and uncertain world. 

So what would you say to students who protest that they will never use—for example, a class in biology, philosophy or sociology—in their intended careers? 

GEER: Careers are important. But the purpose of a liberal arts education is to teach you to think. Learning how to think creatively is far more important than pursuing a narrow career. Careers, frankly, come and go—just ask all the business majors at financial firms who have lost their jobs. The ability to think, by comparison, is useful for all careers. You never know what life will yield, what new directions you might take. The liberal arts education will prepare you for such journeys. So, take the philosophy class—it will pay dividends in more ways than you can appreciate.

FURBISH: Regardless of one’s educational path, an informed perspective of science is a key ingredient of scholarship, of lifelong learning, of communication, of making informed choices.

PATTERSON: A liberal arts education teaches one perspective and to critically analyze our world and imagine new possibilities. A class in biology, sociology, or poetry, or interdisciplinary fields such as Latin American studies or African American and diaspora studies, will bring unexpected rewards. Take these classes and risk becoming perceptive thinkers and innovative leaders.

illustration credit: Jim Frazier

Comments are closed.