President David Munson's remarks at MCC Liberal Arts Panel

RIT President Munson sits on a panel discussion at Monroe County Community College on “Why STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) needs the humanities.”

President David Munson delivered the following remarks at a panel discussion on liberal arts, held at Monroe Community College on May 1.

Thank you for inviting me here this evening for what I think is a critically important conversation.  I note that the title of this event is, “Why STEM Needs the Arts and Humanities.”  My comments this evening probably will better fit the broader theme, “Why We All Need the Liberal Arts!”  I apologize in advance if some of my comments and ideas conflict with the thinking of others in the room, including my fellow panelists. But, I’ve never been one to shy away from talking about more than I actually know, so here goes!

My first thought on the liberal arts is that we all are in this together.  Most colleges and universities are liberal arts schools or dominated by the liberal arts.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the liberal arts as areas of study that are intended to provide general knowledge or develop intellectual capabilities as opposed to the development of specific skills needed for a profession.  And guess what -- just as in the humanities and social sciences, the main focus in the STEM disciplines, such as my own – electrical engineering, is not on the development of specific skills.  More than anything, we teach our students fundamentals, and habits of learning and patterns of thought.  Maybe that’s why faculty members in the STEM disciplines often are strong advocates of the liberal arts.   Tonight is one of those cases!

Let’s talk about the value proposition for the liberal arts.  What might be involved in selling the liberal arts?  In my opinion, we should try to articulate a more compelling position on the value of the liberal arts than those notions typically offered by public intellectuals and academic leaders, and frequently published in venues such as The Chronicle of Higher Education.  A standard defense of the liberal arts argues that the liberal arts excel at teaching a student how to think abstractly, how to analyze, and how to communicate.  I have two problems with this “nuts and bolts” sales pitch for the liberal arts.  First, students in many different disciplines learn these same things very well.  The traditional liberal arts don’t have a monopoly on abstract thinking, analysis, and communication.  Second, and more important, this line of argument is a little like saying that one should study a musical instrument in order to improve hand-eye coordination.  Clearly there are far more important reasons to study music, just as there are wide ranging and critically important reasons for valuing the traditional liberal arts.  

A second common defense of the liberal arts rests on the fact that most people will hold many different jobs in their careers, and most jobs that will be available 20 years from now haven’t even been created yet.  The argument goes that since we can’t possibly know our future occupations, we should all receive a broad, i.e., liberal arts, training.  Well, this argument doesn’t hold water either, because it assumes that if a person is a scientist or engineer, they cannot easily shift and do other things.  That’s simply not true.  Most of the so-called engineers I know are no longer doing engineering. Many are running corporations; some are running wineries and some are sculptors and painters.  In my time as an engineering faculty member, I found that I simply could not predict what my students would be doing several years after graduation.  

Okay, so this supporting rationale for the liberal arts doesn’t get us very far.  So, what does?  How about this: The humanities, social sciences, and the arts are core to what it means to be human.  Life would be pretty dull without literature, history, and the arts.  Well, that’s an idea!  Oh, but half the population doesn’t prioritize that either, excepting all those in this room!  So, let me try some other notions, which I think are pretty powerful:

  1. First, the greatest challenges facing humanity today are not purely, or even primarily, technical.  From a technological standpoint, we already know how to solve the problems of climate change, poverty, clean water, affordable healthcare, nuclear proliferation, and others.  But, we don’t have the political, social, policy and leadership ideas and skills to put these issues to bed.  It’s clear that we need people from many different disciplines, especially the liberal arts, working together to create workable solutions that can scale to solve the world’s toughest problems.
  2. Second, nationalism and discord are on the rise, with more citizens retreating to their own echo chambers, watching cable news channels that broadcast entertainment, rather than unbiased news, in an effort to maintain their viewership.  This seems very dangerous, but where are we headed?  What are the likely consequences?  To answer these questions, I think we had better ask historians, psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists.  Why?  Because, as pointed out to me by John Seely Brown, those trained in these disciplines often are better at “reading the future,” than are technologists.  After all, if you don’t know where you have been, and don’t understand political and social forces and systems, how can you predict the future?
  3. Third, information security and privacy are emerging concerns of immense proportions.  Cybersecurity seemingly is a technical problem.  But, actually we already have technical solutions that work quite well, until the human gets in the way and makes a mistake.  How do we prevent this?  Maybe we need more people working on the problem who actually understand humans!  And, what about privacy?  With systems capturing our every keystroke, our web browsing behavior, and ubiquitous video surveillance, how concerned are we?  Don’t you think it’s spooky?  Is it okay?  What are the ethics?  Shouldn’t people trained in the liberal arts weigh in on privacy and ethics?
  4. Lastly, suppose we consider the need for critical thinking.  This is all the rage these days; everyone needs to be a critical thinker!  But, I’m confused.  Are we referring to scientific thinking?  Or careful thinking?  Or smart thinking?  What is critical thinking, anyway?  Actually, it has its basis in philosophy and logic.  So, we are right back to the liberal arts.  Likewise, mathematics has its foundations in philosophy!  Wow, that’s a notion – the M in STEM comes directly from the liberal arts.     

I could ramble on, but let me conclude with some observations.  First, human brains that are good at STEM disciplines often are adept in other areas, including one or more of the arts.  Or, I could say this vice versa.  When I was Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, I learned that 70% of my students were musicians.  Here in Rochester at RIT, I have found that a large fraction of my STEM students are talented musicians, artists, and actors.  This mirrors my own extended family, where both math and music came easily.  So, what did my three brothers and my sister study in college?  Answer: Mathematics, English, Theater, and Computer Science.  And yet we all have similar brains in terms of aptitudes and overall interests.  In my own case, as an electrical engineer, I’ve always been involved in music, as have many of my STEM faculty members at RIT.  The new Director of the School of Mathematical Sciences at RIT is both a mathematician and a novelist.  So, maybe the divide between STEM and the liberal arts is artificial.  In my travels to major cities around the world, my first stop is always an art museum or sometimes a theater.  After that, I may or may not visit the science museum.  I wonder what that says about STEM and the liberal arts!

I know of parents who are concerned that their Johnny or Suzy wish to major in the liberal arts.  My advice is always that their student should choose the major for which they have the most passion.  But, there are two caveats.  First, I suggest that a student majoring in the liberal arts also take a few courses in computing and in business to round out their program.  These students have significant job opportunities.  Second, I stress the importance of incorporating synthesis, as well as analysis, within a college education.  By synthesis, I mean creation and innovation (putting creativity into action).  Within an academic setting, creation, innovation, and “making” can occur in every field, whether it be writing a poem or short story, choreographing a dance, composing a piece of music, advancing a new scientific hypothesis, developing a new government policy, designing a new piece of technology, creating a social movement, or launching a start-up company.  The point is that every student can be involved in creating things that never before existed, and then putting those concepts into motion, in an effort to improve the world.  And, if the development of this mindset and the leadership to bring new ideas to fruition are an intentional part of the education of every student, then these graduates will be especially well prepared for the future, no matter what they study. 

Thank you, and I look forward to participating on the panel!