Why we need the liberal arts

We are proud that RIT is the third largest producer of undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates among all private universities in the nation. But we also have a goal of developing the most relevant liberal arts program in the nation. Why is it important that the liberal arts be infused into a university with technology in its name?

In some cases, the liberal arts are intertwined with STEM. At RIT, you’ll find students like Landyn Hatch, majoring in museum studies, in our makerspace—The Construct—creating 3D-printed mannequin hands for the Genesee Country Village & Museum.

You’ll also find Timothy Engström, professor of philosophy, and Carlos Lousto, professor of mathematical sciences, and astrophysical sciences and technology, discussing gravitational waves, black-hole mergers, the Big Bang and the early universe.

And this fall, you’ll find nearly 150 freshmen who’ve earned performing arts scholarships via digital auditions in music (vocal and instrumental), theater, dance and technical production. Most of these students will major in STEM disciplines, but they also are supremely talented in the performing arts.

Advocates for the liberal arts often point to the importance of analysis, critical thinking, communications and ethics, which are acquired from a liberal arts education. But these skills and topics are not exclusive to the liberal arts. I believe there is a more compelling rationale for the importance of the liberal arts.

Here are some of my thoughts:

The humanities, social sciences and the arts are core to what it means to be human. They introduce different ways of knowing and being. They add depth and richness to our daily lives—imagine how dull life would be without the liberal arts!

The greatest challenges facing humanity today are not purely technical. From a technological standpoint, we understand ways to solve the problems of climate change, poverty, clean water, affordable health care, nuclear proliferation and others. Yet, we don’t have the political, social, policy and leadership skills to put these challenges to bed. It’s clear that we need people from many different disciplines working together to solve the world’s toughest problems.

Nationalism and discord are on the rise, with more citizens retreating into their own echo chambers, watching news channels that broadcast entertainment, rather than unbiased news, and saying things on social media that they never would say in a thoughtful conversation, face-to-face. This is scary! 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.

Let me close by noting that the liberal arts are “making” disciplines, just like their STEM cousins. 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, designing a new piece of technology, creating a social movement or launching a start-up company.

Every student should be involved in creating things that never existed before, and then putting those concepts into motion. At RIT, the development of this mindset and the leadership to bring new ideas to fruition are an intentional part of the education of every student.

In this way, our graduates are well prepared for the future and positioned to contribute to the greater good, together.

Sincerely,

David C. Munson Jr., President
munson@rit.edu
Twitter: @RITPresident