The Forum | General Education

Ali Eskandarian: Scientists Need a Liberal Education

August 20, 2019

Dr. Eskandarian is the Executive Director of the Fund for Academic Renewal at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Prior to joining ACTA, Dr. Eskandarian was a professor at George Washington University (GW) and dean of GW’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus as well the College of Professional Studies. He holds a BS in physics and a Ph.D. in theoretical nuclear physics from George Washington University.

Dr. Eskandarian sat down with ACTA's Erik Gross to discuss why science is integral to a liberal education, and why there is a false dichotomy placed between science and the liberal arts.  

Erik: Why is natural science an essential aspect of a quality liberal arts education?

Ali: High-quality liberal arts education concerns itself with the learning and dissemination of the salient achievements of human intellect. What we currently label as the natural sciences constitute a segment of our intellectual heritage that has a profound impact on us and our interactions with the rest of the universe; not only contributing to a deeper understanding of the world, but also providing us with advanced tools to shape our well-being at such a scale that would not be imaginable before. Therefore, we must consider the enterprise of the natural sciences as an essential component of a worthy curriculum in the liberal arts.

“We must consider the enterprise of the natural sciences as an essential component of a worthy curriculum in the liberal arts.”

Erik: Why is there a false dichotomy placed between the sciences and the liberal arts, when science is a critical component of a well-rounded liberal education, and how do we reform this?

Ali: Your question is framed exactly right. The dichotomy is, indeed, false, yet it does exist as a matter of practice. As early as the mid-twentieth century, C.P. Snow famously wrote The Two Cultures to tackle this very question. The disconnect may be, in part, due to the methods of inquiry and different methodologies that are utilized in attacking the problems at hand in each of these fields—separating the practitioners. The language and means of communication particular to a given field can develop insular walls among experts, making them drift away from each other gradually.

Some disconnect within academia, at least, is due to sub-optimal organizational structures that discourage cross-disciplinary interactions. However, the nature of major outstanding problems facing societies today is such that only multi- and cross-disciplinary approaches may lead to solutions, so collaboration and integration among diverse fields of inquiry is essential and necessary. This fact has permeated into the thinking of scholars and administrators alike, making reform desirable and even urgent. We seem to be on the right track to remedy the situation eventually, as this deficiency in our system of higher education is well recognized. However, true reform and integration may take a while longer.

Erik: Why do students who wish to pursue a career in the sciences need a solid foundation in the humanities? How do the disciplines complement each other?

Ali: The scientific enterprise does not encompass all intellectual, or other (e.g., artistic), endeavors worthy of learning and essential to a comprehensive education. Although the methods of science are utilized widely (sometimes erroneously and beyond their realm of validity), there are relevant questions and topics that science cannot address adequately at this juncture, since they fall outside its scope of applicability. Sometimes, advances in science lead to a broadening of the type of questions and problems that can be legitimately addressed and potentially solved. For example, before Einstein’s theories led to a deeper understanding of the connection between physics and geometry, certain questions in cosmology did not lend themselves to adequate and proper scientific investigation; but, afterwards, the scientists had the intellectual tools and proper scientific framework to address them. It is possible that certain questions beyond the scientific reach at the moment would become amenable to investigation by scientific methods at a later time. However, it is safe to state that in any given era, there will be worthy human endeavors—unique to the make-up and needs of human beings and their interactions, and essential to their well-being (hence, labeled as “humanities”)—that complement what the scientific enterprise offers us, and that are essential to the education of a well-rounded student of the “liberal arts.”

“Advances in science lead to a broadening of the type of questions and problems that can be legitimately addressed and potentially solved.” 

Erik: Why do students who wish to pursue a more qualitative career need a background in the sciences?

Ali: Studying the sciences, at the very least, has the effect of inducing desirable habits of mind that have utility beyond the fields of science. No career is divorced from quantitative considerations anymore; hence, it is highly desirable to learn enough about quantitative methods to become conversant, as well as to develop an understanding of their limits of applicability. The sciences, by virtue of being inherently bent more toward quantitative methods, provide invaluable learning experiences for the more qualitatively-focused studies. 


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