Three Cheers for Liberal Arts Education!

I’ve been selling out my species for at least six years now. I am referring, of course, to English and liberal arts majors. I have been working for various organizations that promote Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education. Do I have anything against the liberals arts? Why do I do this? The answer to the first question is no. As to the “why,” that might take a little longer.

Why is an English major supporting STEM education?

I have been a science fiction and space geek since at least 1977 and the advent of Star Wars. Before that movie, I was into airplanes. I probably should have been an engineer but for a couple of glaring skill gaps in my makeup: I couldn’t draw/design things very well and I couldn’t handle numbers well. (It’s wonderful when my mother confirms this: “Yeah, I was looking around for some things and found your old report cards–you weren’t really great at math then, either.”)

So I became a science fiction writer, if only in my mind. A writer, to be certain. I was writing fiction in my free time–I have a box full of bad manuscripts to prove it–until I eventually managed to get an English literature degree and then, some years later, a master’s degree in technical writing. Why the M.A.? So I could work in the actual space industry. I had a keen interest in human space exploration and the political rhetoric behind it. I figured, with a solid interest in the subject and the skills to communicate in non-Engineering English, I could help advance the cause.

In order to have a civilization capable of sending human beings to other planets, you need citizens who are educated in STEM. Thus I have no problem supporting groups like Science Cheerleader, the Mars Foundation, or the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, as they are each trying in their own unique ways to move the ball forward. The poets and song writers will come along later. Still, doesn’t a space-minded future need English majors, too?

Why liberal arts majors are still needed in the future I seek

bad-ideaAt some point I will get back to supporting liberal arts–specifically English–education more actively. But perhaps it’s worth taking a look at the liberal arts (here I’ll include literature, fine arts, and history, though I’m certain there are others) and why they matter.

Literature

You could go back as far as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to find examples of stories about human beings’ technology exceeding their wisdom, but science fiction in its modern form–informed by actual science as opposed to pure gee-whiz space opera–has existed since the 1930s or so.

Here’s a definition of SF by author and critic Brian Aldiss that resonated with me:

Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.

Gothic, you say? Certainly. It came out of a challenge at a late-night party that included Mary Shelley, her husband the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and others, to write the best “ghost story.” Gothic stories (think “It was a dark and stormy night…”) focus on the unearthly or the strange, with the subject exposed to mysteries that pose a danger to body or soul. Mary Shelley took on the notion of early science attempting to reanimate human life and the consequences arising from that decision.

Out of such origins we got horror stories like the works of Stephen King and later the graphic novel and TV series The Walking Dead. However, Shelley’s moral concerns with science and technology also gave us Jules Verne, H.G. Welles, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Gene Roddenberry, Ursula K. LeGuin, Larry Niven, Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, William Gibson, and others. The Gothic mode of fiction exposes us to something not being right with the universe and then sends its protagonists deeper and deeper into the center of the mystery until at last the moral center is confronted and defeated (or not, as the author sees fit).

Science fiction tales are the stories humanity tells itself as a way of evaluating how we use science and technology to impact the world around us. Fiction is personal in a way that a marketing brochure or technical manual cannot be. It allows an individual to personalize technology–not put their name on it, but see how it would affect their daily life.

I have written elsewhere in this blog about how SF prepared me to be a technical writer. Part of this “training” arose because it helped me identify the philosophies of the technologies I write about, thus keeping me mindful of the ethics of how it is used. By focusing on individual “characters,” SF also helps the tech writer keep their emphasis on the user, beneficiary, or unintended victim of technology. Yes, training manuals and warning signs have their place, but there’s nothing like a good scientifically informed thriller to help someone feel what it’s like when something goes awry. Consider Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park or The Andromeda Strain as just two examples of well-done, gripping science fiction film making. Crichton became a medical doctor before he became a fiction writer.

Future students of literature or writing will need to be more mindful of STEM (a lack I’ve been slowly trying to overcome since college), in part because science and technology will continue to affect how we live our daily lives. And how the morals and ethics we bring into our daily lives will affect how we use technology.

History

Once a week or so, I seem to come across George Santayana’s well-worn phrase, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This phrase matters because the teaching of history matters. We have approximately 5,000 years of lessons from human history to draw upon–everything from the hideous to the sublime–and these lessons need to be taught. One might ask why? History classes can often go off the rails, becoming nothing but memorizing dates and events or becoming exercises in politically motivated specialty studies that judge the past using present standards while teaching people in the future nothing.

We learn history because human nature hasn’t changed very much over 5,000 years. We still love, hate, fear, pity, and sorrow as much and as intensely as we did when we were building the Pyramids. We still commit acts of individual or mass violence in the name of personal greed, fear, lust, religion, or honor. Our forms of government, morality, ethics, and social mores have become more enlightened and tolerant, if unevenly, based on the lessons we’ve learned from history.

But as a species we are what we are, and so we must be mindful of our dark sides as individuals and in groups. Given a tool that allows us to communicate more quickly, we can share love letters or declarations of war. Given tools that allow us to scale the heavens, we can travel to meet our families, launch probes to explore the solar system, or send explosives to kill our fellow human beings. New tools have not–so far–changed who we are or how we act, and recalling the blood-soaked history of this world, it’s wise to remember that. History exists to remind us of who we are at our worst, but also who we can be at our best.

Music, art, theater, and film

The other liberal arts are more expressive and not tied to particular times or situations. We write songs, paint pictures, create sculptures, or develop dramatic stories on stage, film, or video to express ourselves and our emotional relationships with the world. We are an emotional species, and we usually feel before we think. The arts exist to help us share our common humanity in ways other human beings can understand and share (if not always appreciate).

Why create art? Why would we need to carry it with us as we journey into space? That’s probably something better for an anthropologist to explain than an English major. However, Apollo astronaut Gus Grissom comes close:

The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis, only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men.

Those “terms” are emotional. A robot like Curiosity or Opportunity can provide us with pictures and data explaining what the surface of Mars is like, but they cannot convey what it would be like for a man or woman to walk along that surface and face the dry emptiness of another world. Nor can robots share (at least not yet) the joy of discovery or joy at seeing something the human mind considers beautiful. Our reactions to the physical world, aesthetic or emotional, are uniquely human, and being able to share those experiences clearly and beautifully must remain a part of the education we give our children.

So yes: science, technology, engineering, and math will undoubtedly help humanity go farther and understand even more about the universe and its nature, and those subjects must be taught so that we can pass on that understanding. However, we are also emotional beings, and we need to take our emotional selves–and the art forms we give them–with us to help share why we make the journeys in the first place.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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