Liberal Arts Colleges
as Preparation for a Career in Science
Copyright 1998, 2000-2001 by Ronald B. Standler
Table of Contents
My Interpretation of This Record
Value of Liberal Arts Education
Avoid Narrow Education
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A study by Kenneth R. Hardy, "Social Origins of American Scientists
and Scholars," Science, Vol. 185, pp. 497-506, 9 Aug 1974
showed that scholars who earned their doctoral degree during 1950-61
had often earlier earned their bachelor's degree at a small, elite,
liberal arts college, such as:
The following women's colleges were also found to be highly productive
of graduates who later earned doctoral degrees:
- Reed College in Oregon
- Swarthmore in Pennsylvania
- Oberlin in Ohio
- Antioch in Ohio
- Haverford in Pennsylvania
- Clark in Massachusetts
- Grinnell in Iowa
Hardy's study also showed that California Institute of Technology and
MIT were highly productive in granting bachelor's degrees to students
who later earned a doctoral degree. One would expect such a result, as
these two schools are famous for both their scientific research environment
and small student/faculty ratio. Students choose those two schools to obtain
an intense education in science or engineering, an education that could
well lead to a doctoral degree.
- Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania
- Radcliffe in Massachusetts
- Vassar in New York
- Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts
- Wellesley in Massachusetts
My interpretation of these results for liberal arts colleges is that:
- The quality of teaching is higher at these small liberal arts colleges
than at large universities. There are several reasons for this result:
- smaller student/faculty ratios give the faculty more time to mentor
individual students and grade term papers,
- less pressure on faculty to bring in large research contracts,
which work distracts faculty from teaching undergraduates, and
- involvement of undergraduate students in research programs,
which is rare at big universities that have many graduate students.
- The admission criteria are higher at these small liberal arts
colleges than at large universities. In contrast, most state universities
must admit anyone who graduated from a high school in that state, and
it is rare to fail more than 10% of the students in an introductory class.
- Many of these colleges are located in small towns, so there is nothing
to do there except study. <grin>
The exceptional productivity of the women's colleges is due to the same
factors as for small liberal arts colleges in the preceding paragraph,
plus perhaps two other factors that are more controversial.
My experience in teaching electrical engineering laboratory courses
in the 1980s may give some insight into this phenomena. Because
laboratory equipment is expensive, students work together in groups of two
or three. Students tend to select their groups so that there is not more
than one woman per group, then that woman is assigned the role of secretary:
she records the data neatly in the laboratory notebook while the men
build, debug, and measure the circuit.
When I attempted to intervene and get the women to work alone, or in
an all-women group, the women became angry with me, so I quit trying.
In a women's college, there would be no male students to relegate them to
secretarial roles, so the women would learn more laboratory skills.
Furthermore, at a women's college, there may be less social pressure
to date men, so that the women can focus on their education and preparation
for a career, instead of early marriage and diversion into being a full-time
Finally, I strongly believe that a student who intends to earn a doctoral
degree should get the strongest possible academic preparation in his/her
baccalaureate studies. There are three general ways that such a strong
preparation can be achieved.
While such an opinion may be offensive in an egalitarian society,
it is nonetheless true that the measure of a quality of a college
is in its selectivity.
- Enroll in a college with a very selective admissions policy
(e.g., Harvard, Stanford, MIT), in which less than 25% of the applicants
are accepted. (Further, because of these colleges' reputation,
generally only bright students apply to them.)
- Enroll in a state university that accepts almost anyone,
but which flunks out most of the students during their first two years.
- Attend any large university, then enroll in an honors program there,
which offers classes with small enrollments and an enriched curriculum to
Value of Liberal Arts Education
Aside from the question about whether to attend (1) a large university
where the faculty are primarily engaged in research or (2) a small
liberal-arts college, there is an important point to be made about
the value of a liberal-arts education for scientists.
Reading novels, listening to music, understanding history, ... is part of our
cultural heritage that any educated person should understand.
So taking classes in literature, music, history, etc. is properly
part of one's education. But, aside from such an idealistic view, there
are also practical benefits to such liberal-arts education.
One of the strongest difficulties faced by science and engineering students
is visualizing a problem. A typical problem might involve
A typical textbook problem in a science or engineering class gives
the student the location of various objects or electrical charges,
and asks the student to write equation(s) that describe the motion
of the objects, or describe the electromagnetic field from the charges.
While solving such problems can be difficult for students,
an even more difficult task is to find a creative design
that attains some goal. For example, one might want to design
a machine that achieves some result or function, or one might measure
an electric field and want to infer the location of charges that produces
such a field.
The process of visualizing is inherent in creating a new design,
as one mentally "tries" various solutions and "sees" the result.
- a mechanical arrangement in three spatial dimensions,
- a gas in a thermodynamics problem, or
- an electromagnetic field in space and time.
Where does one learn to visualize?
The answer for me was in reading many hundreds of novels, in which
I visualized the characters and scenery in my mind.
In school, such an experience is obtained in an English literature
class, neither a science class nor engineering class.
As an aside, I note that, in reading a book, one exercises one's imagination
by visualizing the characters and scenery and "hearing" sounds.
In listening to a baseball game on a radio, one still
exercises one's imagination in visualizing the location of the players
on the field, but the sound is explicitly conveyed.
In contrast to reading and listening to the radio, watching television
shows both the action and sound, leaving nothing
to exercise the viewer's imagination.
The fact that modern children spend more time watching television
than reading books may have a disastrous impact on their ability
in later life to visualize and be creative.
A scientist engaged in research does not encounter purely
scientific issues in his/her life. A scientist must continually
interact with people in various ways:
Such "people skills" are learned in liberal-arts classes
(e.g., English literature, rhetoric,
foreign languages, history, philosophy, law, etc.),
but neither a science class nor an engineering class.
- obtain financial support for research,
- manage a laboratory,
- present results in a way that is easy to comprehend, and also in a way that
convinces readers who may be resistant to changing their opinions,
- teach and inspire students and technicians.
It is traditional in science and engineering classes to have
weekly homework exercises, but not a term paper.
Adding a term paper to every science or engineering class would
increase the students' workload to a burdensome level.
But writing term papers is essential preparation for writing
a doctoral dissertation, scholarly papers for publication in archival journals,
long research proposals, etc.
I believe that it is essential that undergraduate science and engineering
students take many liberal-arts classes in which a term paper is
Because scientific research does not occur in isolation from
the remainder of society, scientists should be aware of developments in
politics that affect their work, and scientists should be aware of ethical
and legal implications of their work.
Avoid Narrow Education
My experience in scientific and engineering research has taught me the
value of a broad background. A broad education is
desirable because of what might be called "cross-fertilization of ideas".
Techniques that are well-known in one field can lead to innovation
and progress when applied in a different field.
Facts that are well-known in one field can have unexpected relevance in
a different field. A person who knows those facts
has an advantage over someone who does not know those facts.
A narrowly educated person would not even look for relevant
information in other fields, because narrow specialists
don't venture into other fields.
There is an aphorism:
That aphorism neatly summarizes the advantage of having a broad
knowledge, from which to pull techniques, analogies, etc. for the
solution of new problems. One should try to think of more than one
solution for a particular problem, then choose the most appropriate
solution. People with a narrow expertise will be lucky to find one
solution and even luckier if it is a good solution.
- If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
During four, or even eight, years of full-time university study,
it is impossible to learn everything that one needs to know during
the remainder of one's life.
But a broad education gives one the best preparation to teach one's self
what one needs to know in the future.
More thoughts on this theme are contained in my separate
essay about the proper goals of a college education.
My search on the Internet for "liberal arts education" on 23 May 2001
returned hundreds of essays from college websites and individual professors.
Many of these essays can be dismissed as self-serving praise,
exalting their generalization in humanities, by using
fuzzy if not actually wrong logic. For example:
I believe the following essays about the value of a liberal arts
education rise above the clutter:
- One essay attempted to distinguish
"liberal arts" from the "arcane sciences".
But wait! The classical definition of liberal education
included both physics, chemistry, and mathematics.
(One can, for example, earn a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major
in either mathematics or physics.)
Trying to split science from liberal arts seems to be an
admission that humanities students can not possibly
understand calculus, electromagnetic field theory,
physical chemistry, ... a position that is both insults
the students and artificially isolates science/mathematics from the
remainder of the College of Arts and Sciences.
One does not get a broad, general education by avoiding science
and mathematics classes!
If one wants to be divisive,
I believe that civilization is much more in peril from the majority
than from the tiny minority of scientists and engineers.
That having been said, it is still a good idea for scientists and
engineers to have extensive knowledge of the liberal arts.
- the majority who are ignorant of science and mathematics, and who
then make bad choices about using (or avoiding) new technology,
often behaving as Luddites who actively oppose new ideas and
new methods, and
- the very small number of scientists and engineers, some of whom
are ignorant of literature, rhetoric, philosophy, foreign languages, etc.
- Several essays apologized for the fact that liberal arts majors
receive lower starting salaries than graduates who majored in
engineering, computer science, ....
These essays seem to abandon idealism, by conceding that business
economics alone determines what is worthy in civilization.
It is truly distressing to see humanists make such a
utilitarian concession. (My own thoughts in this area
are in a separate essay about the proper
goals of a college education.)
- Many essays define a specialist
who understands only one isolated field of knowledge
(i.e., what the Germans call a Fachidiot) as an
uneducated person. Such a process is conclusory:
it asserts and explains the conclusion, instead of
giving valid reasons why the conclusion is correct.
this document is at
begun 21 Sep 1998, revised 14 July 2001, links updated 10 Aug 2008
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