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Thoughts on “why a liberal arts education matters…”

February 4, 2012

Two days ago, the New York Times ran this essay by Vedeika Khemani, a graduate of Harvey Mudd College, on Why A Liberal Arts Education Matters.

I found the essay very compelling. Khemani argues that the “pragmatic approach taken by most Indian students to choose…to study whatever will land them a job…rather than intellectual exploration.” The one small point I want to quibble with is this quote:

Real-world problems rarely ever have textbook solutions. More than anything, the purpose of a college education is to learn how to think critically and what questions to ask.

First, I couldn’t agree with this statement more. But, I think one of the best ways to learn this is by studying in fields like physics, math and computer science—fields that to me, embody the liberal arts. I think the flaw is our education system, which presents many of these subjects, especially at the introductory level, simply as long exercises in finding the solution that’s printed in the back of the textbook. In to many of these classes, students never ask questions of their own, and never take on problems with that require approximation, simulation and don’t readily yield closed form solutions. Properly taught these fields are all developing questions that probe into the unknown, and and then developing a systematic approach to finding the answer to those questions.

So how do we encourage people students to embrace the liberal arts further? One critical ingredient I see is reminding students of the vital role of the sciences in a true liberal arts education.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 11, 2012 6:54 am

    I wonder if his point is that math and sciences are two very good examples of liberal arts disciplines in which the courses are dominated by large, heavy, and cumbersome textbooks filled with information that is mostly disconnected from the “real life” of the students. So the courses do not help students learn how to solve current problems in the world today. What if science teachers (even university professors) had to design their courses without a textbook and they were required to take students outside the four walls of the science lab? They could use equipment, but it might not be air tracks as we know it. What would that course look like and how would the teacher use the real world as their backdrop for teaching physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, or computer science? Thoughts?



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