I'm sorry if this is the wrong place to ask this but I don't know any other place to ask.

I'm a research professor, but I enjoy teaching and put a lot of time into my classes. I mainly teach introductory calculus and physics to mainly engineering students. One of the things I've noticed while talking to students is their hate and animosity towards the liberal arts.

I asked for some of my students reasoning and a lot of it was that History, English, Classics, etc. did not follow the "laws of logic and reasoning." There are other examples, but I those are the ones the most common, along with "it's not applicable to life."

I just want my students to learn that living in a bubble academically is not good for your knowledge, and the Colleges and Universities are there to help create educated individuals.


2 Answers 2


I think a well-known rule of writing applies here: Show, don't tell, in the same way it applies to parenting. If you want to help change your students' feelings, you need to show them your love for the liberal arts.

One thing you can do is pepper your courses with relevant analogies, stories and quotes from literature, history and philosophy. For instance, a discussion of Zeno's paradoxes and maybe some things about the ancient Greeks when discussing limits in calculus. Or some historical context for Newton. I don't have any good contextual literature examples at the tip of my typing appendages (maybe something in Lewis Carroll?), but it's easy to preface new topics with semi-relevant quotes such as

 The sense of danger must not disappear: 
 The way is certainly both short and steep,
 However gradual it looks from here; 
 Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
 -- W.H. Auden

Even just displaying some of your favorite pieces of literature in your office can be good. This has led to a few literature discussions with students for me, and discussing literature with students who are interested in front of students who aren't can help convince the latter literature is interesting.

Of course, you won't be able to suddenly convince everyone that they need to run out and read Herodotus in the original Greek to figure out what history class they should take next semester, but you can make some impact for some students this way.

Incidentally, I personally hated having to take the GenEd requirements when I was in college, because there were loads of Math/Science courses I wanted to take. But then when I went to grad school, I wasn't in such a rush, and I read a lot of classics. So many of the students may not be at the right stage of life to appreciate everything. (Also being forced to do something generally makes it harder to enjoy it---in science or liberal arts.)

  • Adding an example of a smart anecdote, I remember seeing a computational complexity lecture note, which started by quoting the Rolling Stones classic "I can get no satisfaction" and then introduced satisfiability. It immediately generated interest though 'rock music' is not exactly a field.
    – Faustus
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 8:15
  • @Faustus Yeah, music examples are fun too. In high school, my calculus teacher would play the Eagles "Take it to the limit" (...one more time) when introducing L'Hospital's rule.
    – Kimball
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 8:27

students ...[exhibit]... hate and animosity towards the liberal arts.

I think it's very important to see this as the confluence of two social process.

First, some portion of students may hold this as their ideology and their social identity. This is the same phenomena that motivate fundamentalists, anti-vaccination partisans (also this and this), and radical environmentalists. All of these groups are held together by adherence to a set of beliefs that are tied to their personal identity, and also their separation from The Other -- some group that is antagonistic or threatening to the main group. The Other is usually stigmatized and seen as the source of many of society's problems. To shift their beliefs, you need to tell stories that preserve their identity and core values, while expanding their awareness of other possibilities. One way to do this is via biographies of famous scientists and mathematicians. Another way is to make connections between events in history that have led to today's science and technology. For inspiration, see James Burke's two documentary series: "Connections" and "The Day the Universe Changed".

The second portion of students -- maybe the majority -- only adopt this view because other influential people in their circle do. Their motivation is "go along to get along". They want to be highly regarded in their circle, their discipline or their field. Their identity is not tied to this issue in the same way as the ideology-motivated people described above. They probably haven't given any serious thought to what the liberal arts are or aren't. Their beliefs are mostly based on hearsay and stereotypes.

For this group, you can offer stories, quotes, or video clips from modern, highly regarded professors, professionals, or similar leaders. They don't have to be profound -- just eye opening. For example, many scientists are also musicians. Some are also historians. Some are novelists. Some have collaborated with philosophers and theologians (e.g. E.O. Wilson).

In dealing with either group of students, you shouldn't communicate that they are wrong in their views. Instead, your stories can show that they don't have the full picture and they are missing out. What they do with it is their choice.

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