The Struggle between Science and Liberal Education

Since the nineteenth century, the value and compatibility of science in academia has been called into question. In an age that emphasizes industrialization and technological progress, the shift towards more vocational curricula has pushed liberal education to the back burner, giving rise to the notion that students cannot undergo both kinds of learning at the same time. However, as professions become more diverse and variable, the need to instill open-mindedness, adaptability, and other liberal qualities while giving students the specialized knowledge they need becomes much more apparent.

In the nineteenth century, proponents of the traditional curriculum feared that science education would force costly sacrifices in teaching classical literature and language, yet technological progress meant that science would inevitably shape the curriculum for the years to come [1]. By the early twentieth century, however, educators began to face different conflicts, one that involved the differences between liberal arts and specialized colleges. Liberal arts colleges required students to take common courses, which public universities soon embraced as “general education”. General education gave way to more specialized schooling in the middle of the century, however, as specialized knowledge strengthened, and universities constantly found themselves refining the balance between courses taken for general education and those taken for a major. Liberal arts schools made it a point to deemphasize specialized knowledge in their curricula: “students study economics, not business; the sciences, not engineering” [2]. This distinction has led to the conventional wisdom that liberal education and specialized education are indeed divergent, a conflict that has become the challenge of twenty-first century educators to overcome [2].

It should be pointed out that a liberal education is not the same as a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education encompasses certain subjects of study, while a liberal education may be pursued through any subject [3]. In presenting its initial understanding of liberal education, the American Association for the Advancement of Science neglects to prescribe a specific curriculum (such as liberal arts), but rather promotes a certain way of learning: “Ideally, a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds” [4]. A liberal education ideally also strives for learning that spans a broad range of subjects. A study conducted at Miami University in Ohio analyzed the effects of an interdisciplinary core curriculum as opposed to a discipline-based general education program. Even though both groups did not have statistically significant differences in generic liberal arts skills, such as argumentation or thematic analysis, students who participated in the interdisciplinary program were found to be superior in cognitive development [5].

Despite considerable efforts to introduce more liberal influences, the current education system at all levels remains geared towards career preparation, as University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum puts it:

Here the demands of the global market have made everyone focus on scientific and technical proficiency as the key abilities, and the humanities and the arts are increasingly perceived as useless frills, which we can prune away to make sure our nation … remains competitive. To the extent that they are the focus of national discussion, they are recast as technical abilities themselves, to be tested by quantitative multiple-choice examinations, and the imaginative and critical abilities that lie at their core are typically left aside [6].

With the growth of universities that focus more on professional or vocational degrees, the relationship between science and liberal education seems to have become more disparate.

The sciences, especially engineering, are not necessarily incompatible with the aims of liberal pedagogy, however. As early as the 1970s, when engineering education still remained a relatively new phenomenon, Polytechnic Institute of New York University professor George Bugliarello proposed the integration of engineering into liberal education, and vice versa. Skills often associated with engineering, such as problem-solving or analysis, could prove useful in broadening the mind of the liberally educated students as they analyze the classics of humanities. Likewise, engineering majors would find it beneficial to integrate a liberal education to sharpen those skills they would otherwise be deficient in, such as learning how to cope with uncertainty [7]. In a world where technical knowledge (like computer programming methods) quickly become obsolete, it is important that professionals be able to adapt to changing industries and learn new skills. Indeed, a survey conducted over a decade ago in the US revealed that while college-bound students and parents valued primarily the short-term outcome of getting a job, employers were much more likely to value the long-term benefits of higher education, including flexibility and a continued capacity for learning [8].

Although incorporating enough science and engineering into a liberal education would diversify a student’s knowledge and abilities, actually putting such a curriculum into practice remains difficult. Professional schools remain reluctant to introduce their students to the moral and ethical debates of the day; this is especially true in religiously affiliated schools, where scholars maintain a delicate balance between religious doctrine and scientific inquiry. Moreover, considerable barriers between disparate fields, like the humanities and sciences, make it difficult to establish connections across the various disciplines [2].

Only eight percent of colleges enrolling four percent of students in the United States offer a liberal education. Robert Schoenberg of the Association of American Colleges and Universities suggests that this reflects some discord with the rest of academia, and maybe it even forces such schools to defend their own curricula [3]. But if liberal education advocates open-mindedness and critical thinking, then the current debate on the merits of liberal education may very well be a part of liberal education itself. Thus, as universities around the nation continue their struggle to balance the demands and influences of specialized and liberal education, students engage in liberal learning itself, and the struggle to reintroduce liberal education becomes self-fulfilling.


  1. Whaley T. Matthew Arnold and Thomas Huxley: The Value of Science and Literature for a Liberal Education. Chicago: University of Chicago; 1985. p. 1-5.
  2. Fong B. Looking Forward: Liberal Education in the 21st Century. Liberal Education. 2004 Winter;90 (1):8-13.
  3. Schoenberg R. How Not to Defend Liberal Arts Colleges. Liberal Education. 2009 Winter; 95 (1):56-59.
  4. Project on Liberal Education and the Sciences. The Liberal Art of Science: Agenda for Action. Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science; 1990. p. xi.
  5. Schilling KL. Assessing Models of Liberal Education: An Empirical Comparison. Oxford, Ohio: Miami University; 1991.
  6. Nussbaum M. Tagore, Dewey, and the Imminent Demise of a Liberal Education. In: Warren K, editor. Reflections on Democracy and Education. Chicago: University of Chicago; 2010. p. 3-7.
  7. Bugliarello G. The New Phase in Engineering Education: Engineering and the New Liberal Education. Engineering Education. 1973 Feb; 63 (5):331-4.
  8. Axelrod P, Anisef P, and Lin Z. Against All Odds? The Enduring Value of Liberal Education in Universities, Professions, and the Labour Market. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education. 2001; 31 (2):47-77.
  9. Image credit: Argonne National Laboratory. Flickr; [Taken 2005 Feb 24; Cited 2011 Mar 15] Available from: [Licensed under CC BY-SA]

Edgar Pal is a first-year majoring in economics and public policy at the University of Chicago.