Image: The seven liberal arts – Illustration from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg, 12th century. Source: Dnalor_01 from Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0).
Yes this is a provocative title, as I expect that many will immediately leap to the political connotations of the word “liberal”. Liberal and conservative; left and right; right and wrong; etcetera. Personally, I think that those words no longer have much meaning in modern political America. These labels seem to be more about polls and elections, power and control, and less about what is best for the people and the planet on which we and all living things depend.
No, when I titled this Provocation I was reflecting upon my son’s recent graduation, and the context I had in mind is liberal education — as in the liberal arts.
From the time I was young, through graduate school, I studied science. And for me science is about seeking the truth. As for ‘truth seeking’ I must confess that I think that many scientists do not seem to recognize this simple fact; though they would deny this lack of recognition on their part most strenuously if you put it to them in this way. From my vantage point, it would seem that many scientists either miss, or ignore, or see only a part of the truth when they come across it. An outcome of this (via the law of unintended consequences and other pathways), is that science and technology are at the root of our problems and challenges today. That being said, it is likely that we will need science and technology, and more importantly new and ethical ways of using and applying them, to transition to a better state of affairs.
How we use and apply science and technology takes us back to liberal education… In a time when we seem to be engaging in “geek worship” and elevating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education over the humanities, we actually need need the liberally educated more than ever.
It is only when we recognize that our greatest and most important problems are sociological and environmental, that we can begin to make better decisions, set better policy, and take appropriate and helpful actions. In an outcome-driven, bottom line-obsessed culture, this shift in thinking will not come from the sciences. We can only achieve this new way of thinking and decision making by recognizing the shared humanity in our plight. And this recognition must extend beyond human beings to include all things, both animate and inanimate. Only then will we actually create the conditions for a hopeful future for all.
So this is the truth that I have found. We have the cart before the horse. Science and technology are now driving society and this is backwards. Ultimately and fundamentally, the solutions to our problems are not technical. They are driven by sociological and environmental imperatives. Thus we must lead from the humanities and let them guide and direct the scientific agenda and set our policies. Therein lies our salvation.
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