Why everyone should study the liberal arts—even future doctors and engineers

Students in STEM, medicine, need liberal arts education to succeed

Even with an increased focus on teaching students technical skills, an education steeped in the liberal arts is essential for students in medicine and other STEM disciplines.   

In a piece for The Conversation, Dartmouth College professors Leslie Henderson, Glenda Shoop, and Lisa Adams explain that as the cost of higher education continues to rise, institutions are under more pressure than ever to demonstrate the value of the liberal arts. That becomes particularly important to prove as the demand for workers with technical skills grows.

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Some may ask why a student pursuing a career in medicine would bother learning about history, politics, or language. According to the authors, these disciplines are not only complementary to STEM education—they're fundamental. 

One reason why the liberal arts are so important for physicians is because learning about subjects such as ethics, sociology, and psychology helps medical providers break down cross-cultural barriers.  

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"To succeed at their trade, doctors not only need to have a sophisticated knowledge of biology, they also must master the complex clinical micro- and macro-systems in which their patients live and they work," the authors write. "Physicians must also fully understand social constructs such as class, gender, and race, explicit and implicit, that mold both how they make medical decisions and how, in turn, patients receive their care."

At Dartmouth, students take part in international service projects that expose them to the "social, political, environmental, and economic factors" that affect delivery of health care—topics that go beyond medicine alone. Meanwhile, institutions such as Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of Texas at San Antonio are incorporating the arts and humanities into their medical curricula. 

In another article for The Conversation, Muhammad Zaman, a professor of biomedical engineering and international health at Boston University, argues that STEM students must learn the historical context behind scientific developments to fully appreciate and understand them. Zaman points to research showing that historical narratives help students link scientific theory with practice. This experience also exposes students to how past scientists overcame early failures and challenges to make monumental discoveries.  

"Looking at the story of science over centuries enables students to understand that research and discovery are continuous processes," Zaman writes. "The findings they arrive at today ...  are the fruits of the hard work of real people who lived in real societies and had complex lives, just like the rest of us."

Henderson, Shoop, and Adams argue that now is the time for medical schools to place a greater emphasis, not less, on developing well-rounded students (Zaman, The Conversation, 8/15; Henderson et al., The Conversation, 8/15). 

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