"Burning with Life": Science in the Catalyst of the Liberal Arts

By Doug McGinnis

Could it be that thinking deeply about subjects such as history, philosophy, and religion makes one a better scientist? Wabash and many other top American schools think so.

In 1665, an apple fell from a tree and landed near young Isaac Newton. Untold numbers of people had seen apples fall and hadn’t given the matter a second thought. But Newton pondered the phenomenon and developed a cornerstone of modern science—the theory of gravity.

The ability to ask deep questions and look for answers lies at the heart of science. So it stands to reason that educators would want to bottle Newton’s brand of thinking and serve it to their students.

Common sense might argue that the best means to that end is to stuff future scientists with chemistry, physics, biology, and mathematics. After all, Newton had an insatiable appetite for science. But Newton owned more books in the humanities than he did in the sciences, and his interests outside of physics and mathematics included religion, ancient history, and Greek mythology.

Could it be that thinking deeply about subjects such as history, philosophy, and religion makes one a better scientist? Wabash and many other top American schools think so.

“A Diversified Toolbox”

“Liberal arts is counterintuitive,” says Mauri Ditzler ’75, Dean of Wabash College and a chemist by training. “The liberal arts education is a diversified toolbox. If you have only one way of looking at things, you will get stuck in the same place everybody else got stuck. If you’ve got different experiences, you may find other ways of solving the problem.”

It’s well known that the fine-tuning of our brains is a “use it or lose it” proposition. The more we think, the better our neural connections. But liberal arts colleges take that logic one step further. Advocates of a cross-disciplinary education argue that learning to think in one field may sharpen the ability to solve complex problems in a seemingly unrelated arena. It may be awhile before neuroscientists establish the truth or falsity of this idea. In the meantime, some of the best minds in science are betting that it’s true.

“Learning about the great books and the humanities can stimulate the sort of brain waves that serve a scientist pretty darn well,” said Tom Cech, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and a graduate of Grinnell College. “The more types of thinking you have to do, the more skills you can bring to a scientific problem.

“Are taking all these liberal arts courses a waste of time, or is it important in developing your ability to think by cross-training in these other topics? I’m of the belief that it’s not a waste of time…You could get more science if you went to a trade school, but ultimately that may not produce the best scientists.

“You grow the most when you’re hit from something in a different direction,” says Cech, who now heads the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “You could study chemistry, chemistry, and chemistry. But there’s a point of diminishing returns.”

Cech’s own study of top liberal arts colleges, published in the journal Daedalus, produced a startling finding. On average, these colleges produced far more science Ph.D.’s per hundred bachelors degree graduates than did big research universities. For every 100 Swarthmore graduates, 18 go on to earn science or engineering Ph.Ds. For Carleton, it’s 15, for Reed, 14.

Now look at a sampling of major research universities. For the University of Chicago, it’s 13, for Harvard 11, for Stanford 8, for Berkeley 7, for Michigan 5, and for Columbia 2. Only Cal Tech, M.I.T, and Harvey Mudd, all technical institutions, outperform the top three liberal arts colleges. The study covered a five-year period from 1991-1995.

A similar study conducted in the 1980s named Wabash to “the Oberlin Group”—48 “outstanding science-active liberal arts colleges” that produce not only excellent research but also, by percentages, over three times as many science graduates as all colleges and universities.

It would stand to reason that the big players—including the major state universities—might want to mimic a Wabash or Carleton and use liberal arts training as a springboard for science. Some try. Yet big schools may not be able to duplicate all the advantages of a small one, even though they have more equipment, famous faculty, and often work on cutting-edge research that can’t be done at Wabash and its peer schools.

Size Matters

It could be the little things that make the difference. For instance, at Wabash, professors don’t just teach. They also serve as mentors and role models. “You don’t just see our professors for a 50-minute lecture,” says Ditzler. “You are apt to run into them at concerts, basketball games, or in the library. At a liberal arts college, the student gets to know faculty members in a lot of roles. Students are introduced to the intellectual life by watching faculty. They can see themselves following in that faculty member’s footsteps.”

Manish Mehta ’86 is a case in point. At Wabash, his inorganic chemistry teacher, David Phillips, invited his senior students to dinner at his house. Phillips and his wife spent a day in the preparation.

“I was taken by that experience,” says Mehta, now teaching chemistry at Oberlin College. “That felt like extended family. I said, ‘If I ever got in a similar teaching situation, I would continue that experience.’ And I did. My wife and I had chemistry students over for the inaugural use of our wedding china, and I was able to offer the same experience that was offered to me. It was a wonderful feeling.”

Beyond that, small colleges do things on a very small, personal scale, especially when it comes to research. Students become deeply involved in research projects that may attract less public notice, instead of doing a little work on a more publicized project at a research university.

“Often in the liberal arts environment, the student plays a larger role in a smaller project,” says Ditzler. “So the chance that they will have a unique insight, or make a discovery of their own, is greater at a liberal arts college. If they are one of 15 students working on a project at a big school, they may contribute data, but they’re not as likely to see the big picture or have their own insights.”

“It’s better to be exposed to many sides of a small problem than one tiny side of a big problem,” says Mehta, who found his research background at Wabash served him well in his Ph.D. program at Yale.

Making Connections

But Wabash turned out world-class researchers even in the days when student research was minimal, or non-existent. Graduates say their exposure to the humanities and social sciences helped them learn to think as scientists.

David Ong ’65, professor of biochemistry at Vanderbilt Medical School, was forced to ask questions in a course on non-Christian religions.
“I got in there and realized they were talking about Eastern philosophy,” he recalls. “In order to do well, I couldn’t just sit there and memorize. I had to think.

“You can’t be a good researcher in science without questioning,” he said. “If you don’t question, you’ll never create a new trail. If you aren’t willing to think the new idea and push it, you can easily fall into the trap of doing things that confirm established knowledge. The liberal arts overcome this because they ask you to think more deeply.”

Stephen Rogers ’69, who was awarded the 1997 National Medal of Technology for his work with the Monsanto team which pioneered genetic engineering in plants, concurs: “The important thing in science is seeing a different pattern or connection. That’s why things like history and literature were so valuable. In those fields, you make connections.”

Science and Socrates

The liberal arts date back more than 2,000 years to the ancient Greeks. Plato’s academy near Athens, for example, taught gymnastics, music, poetry, literature, mathematics, and philosophy—and philosophy frequently delved into science.

Yet science was often absent from the curriculums of early American colleges. Students were taught a body of classical knowledge and a variety of intellectual skills which prepared them to take over the most prestigious jobs of colonial society. Often they became clergymen.

“Science was largely not included because it was considered too pedestrian,” says Charlie Blaich, research director for the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash.

But gradually, the vistas of American higher education widened as American academics adopted the type of scientific training found abroad at Scottish and German universities. The Scottish impact came in the early 1700s when that country’s scientists emigrated to America and Americans enrolled in the University of Edinburgh’s medical school.

In the 1800s, Americans traveled to Germany for advanced study in science, then returned to America to teach. Over time, the model of liberal arts we have today emerged —with science majors required to study humanities, and humanities majors required to take science.

Thus, Dennis Whigham ’66 found himself exposed to some of the planet’s cultural differences through courses on the Old Testament and comparative religions. These proved invaluable in his career as a Smithsonian Institution ecologist. “They opened my eyes to the world,” he said.

Whigham’s ability to understand other cultures served him well when he traveled to Mexico in support of conservation measures there. He found that residents of rural farming communities needed to be convinced that setting aside land wouldn’t interfere with their survival.

Their world view was quite different from ours because they were trying to survive. Things have to be done in a way that’s very practical. You would have to convince them that a preserve is not going to interfere with bringing in the resources they need to support their family.

“I wouldn’t say those religion courses grabbed me at the time. It was only later in life when I had time to travel and meet people from other cultures that I understood how they had influenced me. I was able to listen to what other cultures had to say.”

There are constant pressures, however, to dilute the liberal arts education—to say that even more emphasis on science would produce even better scientists.

“That seems like the logical thing to do,” says Dean Mauri Ditzler. “But as you do that, you lose the liberal arts courses that help scientists make connections. Then we would turn out students who are more and more like students at other institutions.

“The danger is that we will get tunnel vision and forget our lessons from the past—that the broader liberal arts education has done a better job of producing scientists.”