The liberal arts are sometimes imagined to be in opposition to STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine. But this opposition is a confused one, as the foundational S of STEM, science, occupies a pride of place in the liberal arts. The “liberal arts” are not synonymous with the arts and humanities; the archaic term is the surviving legacy of a time when the sciences were arts too.

In fact, it is perhaps not generally remembered today that the word “scientist” was coined on the analogy of the word “artist”. This happened, as the cultural critic Marjorie Garber reminds us, in the 1830s, when the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science felt the acute absence of a term to describe the practitioner of science: “Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty...savans was rather assuming...; some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist*=.”

The unhappiness with the word “philosopher” says much. The term “natural philosophy” seems to have done fine as the precursor of the term “science” all the way from Aristotle to the 19th century. Philosophy, as the love for knowledge, but as embedded in nature, as opposed to the world of human behaviour. Even Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the iconic work that formed one of the foundations of modern science, uses the term “natural philosophy”. The Association needed a specific term to describe the practitioner of science that was distinct from the “wide and lofty” reach of the word “philosopher”. Such was the need to specialise that came to define the scientific disciplines following the Enlightenment, which ushered intellectual, political and economic modernity in 18th century Europe.

These were transforming times. There were just a few decades to go before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which would take the secular spirit inaugurated by the Enlightenment to a whole other level by endangering Christian theories of creationism. The battle of faith continues to be fought till date by conservative Christians in the United States. In 2017, the country finally got a Vice-President who believes in the Christian theory of intelligent design over Darwinian evolutionism.

In other words, by creating the term “scientist” as more empirically grounded and more specialised than the umbrella term of the “philosopher”, science was sharpening the contours of its new independence from the broad concept of philosophy, which was till then synonymous with the entire spectrum of knowledge. The Greek etymology of philosophy supports its ambitious identification with knowledge on the whole, better still, the state of seeking, or loving it: philos = love; sophia = knowledge. Today, however, philosophy embraces all disciplines in its colossal hug only as a symbolic gesture, in the full form of the PhD degree – the Doctor of Philosophy.

One of the most commonly misunderstood things about the term “liberal arts” is that it embodies a similar terminological anachronism.

An endearing sort of anachronism, I would say, though others may differ. The term “arts” here simply recalls a time when everything came under the purview of the arts. The medieval European university classified the liberal arts in two groups: the four scientific arts – music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, made up the Quadrivium, while the three arts of the humanities – grammar, logic and rhetoric – made up the Trivium.

The tidal wave of modernity that followed the Enlightenment – driven by the scientific discoveries, the industrial revolution, the shaping of the modern democratic nation-state, and colonial expansion across the world – led to a large-scale reorganisation of knowledge and the emergence of several of the modern disciplines. It was around this time that the universities started to play a more active role in the shaping of various academic disciplines. Slowly, they began to displace the amateur scholar and started to professionalise the different domains of knowledge.

The psychologist Steven Pinker has pointed to the deepening suspicion of science that has come to characterise the humanities in recent decades. Humanists resent science taking on the big questions of existence. They insist that these questions should be left to philosophical, ethical, religious, and artistic thought. Scientific attempts at answering such questions, Pinker argues, are routinely accused of “determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called ‘scientism’.”

The humanist mistrust of science, sadly, comes from both the Left and Right.

Left-leaning humanists mistrust positivist thinking as that driven by scientific confidence to make sense of the world. They accuse faith in reason and progress deriving from the Enlightenment of “scientifically” engineered means of perpetuating power and domination: social Darwinism, clinical racism, leading to the pervasive disasters of imperialism and eugenics – the selective breeding of the “fit” and the elimination of the “unfit”. Every human-made disaster in the modern age is accordingly blamed not only on the proliferation of advanced technology but on the very sensibility of scientific reason – from the massive death and destruction of the two World Wars to the soulless cruelty of drone attacks.

The Right has focused its fire on what it sees as science’s theft of traditional religious beliefs and moral principles. The polemic goes all the way back to the very origin of life, manifested, for instance, in ugly curricular conflicts between Creationism and Darwinism – as to whether god or evolution created biological life. Such fights, Pinker argues, are symptomatic of a deeper and longer resentment – that “our new biology, eliminating all mystery, can give a complete account of human life, giving purely scientific explanations of human thought, love, creativity, moral judgment, and even why we believe in god”.

Religion’s quarrel with science is understandable. But the political conflict between science and religious studies, or of its close neighbour, philosophy, is unfortunate; it is largely driven by the ideological stubbornness of certain practitioners of the humanities. Science shapes a definite philosophy. This philosophy, in turn, shapes the world-view of educated persons today and their moral and spiritual values. Neither the fundamental metaphysical questions of life nor the archives of philosophy can be possibly off-limits for science, as some provincial humanists would like to believe.

The mistrust between the sciences and the humanities is also the wedge driving the liberal arts apart, for the liberal arts have the same claim on the fundamental sciences as STEM does. But the former has done a poor job of realising this claim. The disciplinary short-sightedness, and more crucially, the ideological provincialism of much humanist practice in recent decades must take their share of the blame.

The anachronism embodied in the term “liberal arts” – recalling a time when mathematics, literature and economics were all “arts” – has made the erroneous equation between the humanities and the liberal arts a final and lasting one in the public mind.

The unnatural omission of the basic sciences from the liberal-arts family has turned the latter impoverished, the humanities parochial, and science bereft of the big questions it is meant to ask, narrowly yoking it to the pragmatic instrumentalism of STEM education.
If philosophy can be studied as a liberal arts discipline, so can physics. And the most exciting model of art-science education would be to study both together. The sharpening of specialisation and the erection of walls around the disciplines have brought us way too far away from the memory of times when everything was part of one large (artistic) family. New realities such as the globalisation of digital cultures now look all set to revive such “promiscuous” collaborations. The old art-science education is also the brave new one.

The term “the liberal arts” comes from the days before the full specialisation and professionalisation of knowledge, and the separation of the sciences into a fundamentally different space. But while philosophy has gradually become fragmented into various natural and social disciplines, the liberal arts still continue to be the larger name for the arts and sciences that are not linked to training for specific professions.

Victor Ferrall does not think this anachronism is endearing. “The day the word *liberal* stopped being used to describe education ‘befitting a gentleman in social rank’,” he argues provocatively, “it should have been scrapped by the academic community.” It is unfortunate that the use of the term “liberal” has historically denoted a certain class privilege when the education it describes is so open, full of possibilities, and relevant to all lives. Almost anything else, he thinks, would work better, listing four: “broad, open, inclusive, general”. Someone, he writes with rich suggestiveness, has described it as “awesome education”!

In today’s context, it is more appropriate to speak of a liberal arts education than a liberal arts subject.

There is really nothing called a liberal arts subject; any subject can be taught as one. A liberal arts education, on the other hand, is a very distinctive thing. A liberal arts education is defined by its difference from professional education, which prepares the student for a specific career – medicine, engineering, journalism, business administration, or any other particular profession. The difference between the two goes all the way back to the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who laid out the idea behind what would eventually become the modern Western university.

In his treatise, The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant delegates theology, law and medicine (intended, respectively, to train clergymen, lawyers and physicians) to the higher faculty. The lower faculty was intended to include all the disciplines, which in the modern university fall under the arts and the sciences. Kant called the members of the higher faculty “businessmen or technicians of learning” – people who would shape public administrative policy, possessing what he described as “legal influence on the public”.

What is intriguing, as the scholar Mark Taylor points out, is that contrary to the implication of the terms “higher” and “lower”, Kant clearly sees greater independence and autonomy in the lower faculty. The higher faculty trains students for the key institutions of public life, but accordingly, they are subject to state control and censorship. It is the lower faculty that is free to pursue knowledge for its own sake, and remains free of government interference and calculations made on the basis of vested interests from outside.

The scholar and educator Wilhelm von Humboldt, a close follower of Kant, implemented this principle at the University of Berlin, which was founded in 1810. Humboldt’s implementation of the Kantian model would become the basis of the modern university that would subsequently turn into a self-governing structure that seeks to combine research, teaching and professional training in a variety of ways.

Within the modern system of post-secondary education, similar subjects can be a liberal or a professional subject, depending on how it is curricularised and/or taught: biology is a liberal art but medicine is not; political science is a liberal art but law is not; economics is a liberal art while accountancy is not.

Nearly any disciplinary field, Louis Menand points out, can be turned into liberal or non-liberal depending on its association with adjacent practical skills. English departments can become writing or publishing programmes; pure or abstract mathematics can merge into applied mathematics or engineering; sociology holds the promise of social work, just the way biology holds the roots of medicine; political science and social theory offer the foundations of law and public administration.

Just as importantly, Menand reminds us, the reverse is also true, that “any practical field can be made liberal simply by teaching it historically or theoretically”. Economics departments often refuse to incorporate accountancy as part of their curriculum as the latter is not considered a liberal art like the former. But there is always room for adjustment, and one’s education is always richer for that. “Accounting is a trade, but the history of accounting is a subject of disinterested inquiry – a liberal art.” The symbiosis of nutrition between the liberal and the practical is mutual: “future lawyers benefit from learning about the philosophical aspects of law, just as literature majors learn more about poetry by writing poems.”

Excerpted with permission from College: Pathways of Possibility, Saikat Majumdar, Bloomsbury.