“What is a liberal arts education, anyway?” by Richard Olson

In a speech delivered at Harvey Mudd College’s Presentation Day in 2015, Richard Olson ’62, professor of history emeritus, highlights the challenge of engaging a liberal arts approach to STEM education at Harvey Mudd College.

When Bob Keller (HMC professor of computer science) asked if I would be interested in giving the keynote speech for Presentation Days, I wondered what I could talk about that would be of broad interest to HMC students and faculty. I was pretty certain that my most recent and my current research topics would not do. Students who have taken my courses know that I can get wound up about science and religion in the Hellenistic world or epistemological problems associated with empirical psychology between 1760 and 1820, but I was pretty sure that either of these topics would be a huge snooze for most of you; so I asked my colleagues in HSA if they had any suggestions. They had been discussing liberal arts education in the new freshman course and several suggested that I offer my take on HMC and liberal arts education.

Dick Olson '62

Dick Olson, 1962

I want to distinguish liberal education from liberal arts education for reasons that I hope will gradually become clear.

The nature of liberal education and the connection between liberal education and technical education in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering is a topic I have been interested in since I was a junior here in 1960–1961 and took a course called Science and Man’s Goals, taught by an historian, John Ray, and an engineer, Jack Alford. The first two books we read were A.N. Whitehead’s The Aims of Education and C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution. And while I now disagree with much of what Snow argued, some of Whitehead’s views have stuck in a slightly modified form.

The topic of liberal education and its relation to technical education (now sometimes referred to as STEM education) played a major role in my PhD dissertation on “Science and Science Education in 18th-century Scotland,” an even greater role in my first book on Scottish Philosophy and British Physics, 1750 –1880, and it was a constant topic of discussion while I was a faculty member at UC Santa Cruz before I came back to HMC. In fact, I was involved in formulating a set of core courses at Crown College, the first science-oriented college at Santa Cruz, which attempted to integrate scientific activities, attitudes and knowledge into the broader cultural context in which it developed. I edited a collection of readings for that course, and the basic topic has been the focus of my entire subsequent career.

So here, I want to discuss how I see the current state of liberal education in the United States and to offer an argument that, in a very important sense, Harvey Mudd College today offers the best liberal education to be had not just in America but anywhere in the world.

In 2000, the Carnegie Foundation’s categorization of Harvey Mudd—which appears in the annual college guide issue of Newsweek magazine—changed from Specialty School: Engineering to Liberal Arts College. It was a change prompted by a query from then president Jon Strauss to the foundation and motivated largely by a sense that the change would give HMC access to a larger pool of potential applicants. It turns out that at that time, for largely technical reasons, HMC was able to choose its own category because the guiding criterion was whether an institution graduated more than 50% of its students in majors traditionally granted by liberal arts institutions or in majors with a more professional orientation. Fewer than 50% of HMC graduates were engineers, but the foundation had not yet decided how to deal with the relatively new major in computer science, so it allowed institutions to decide whether to count the CS major as belonging either to the liberal arts or to the professions. If CS was counted as more profession than liberal art, then more than 50% of HMC grads were in professional programs and HMC was a specialty school. If CS was considered more as a liberal art, then we became a liberal arts college.

We chose the latter path and, as a marketing strategy, it has been remarkably successful. Furthermore it is consistent with the way in which computer science has come to be dealt with by most highly selective liberal arts colleges. In fact, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Oberlin, Grinnell, Middlebury, Pomona, Wellesley and Bowdoin—i.e., nine among the top 10 national liberal arts colleges—now have CS departments and majors.

But does a Harvey Mudd education really seem more like an education at one of these liberal arts colleges, or does it seem more like that at MIT, Rose Hulman or Caltech—places whose graduates are more likely to compete for placement in graduate schools or for jobs with HMC graduates—or even like that at the Colorado School of Mines, where I taught in the Division of Liberal Arts and International Studies during the 2001–2002 academic year? None of these places would qualify as a liberal arts college.

When Joe Jacobs, head of Jacobs Engineering and longterm HMC trustee, died in 2004, Joe Platt, founding president of HMC, gave a talk at his memorial service. He went out of his way to say that, from his perspective, HMC was not and never had been a liberal arts college; it was a college of engineering, mathematics and the sciences with a strong emphasis on liberal education. That is, from its inception, it was a hybrid institution. I completely agree with Joe Platt’s understanding of HMC, but I would add something important that I suspect Joe would agree with as well. I believe that HMC carries forward an historically important vision of liberal education that has been all but abandoned by most American liberal arts colleges, and it has been a model for the transformation of elite technical education in places like MIT and Caltech in a more liberal direction over the past 50 years.

In order to understand that important vision of liberal education I want to do what historians almost always do: tell some stories about long ago and far away.

The time of the first story is the second half of the 18th century and the place is lowland Scotland, including Edinburgh and Glasgow. University education everywhere in Europe was still organized to some degree as it had been in the medieval university: undergraduates took a required set of subjects to graduate with bachelor of arts degrees before they went on to get graduate degrees in medicine, law or theology—these undergraduate subjects were still called the liberal arts—but especially in Scotland their general content had changed substantially from the trivium and quadrivium of 200 years earlier.

There were some variations from place to place, but every Scottish university required graduates to take three years of moral philosophy beginning in the first year with a course that was usually called Ethics, but which started with discussions of how we get our knowledge and ideas, i.e., with what is now called epistemology. It then went on to derive from the character of our ideas, considerations of what we might call human nature and the natural rights and obligations of human beings. In the second year, students studied political philosophy and jurisprudence: the rights and obligations of human beings as bound together by laws and local customs. Finally, by shortly after the mid-18th century, the third year of the moral philosophy class had abandoned its previous emphasis on natural theology and come to emphasize political economy—what we would call economics—the different ways in which societies produce and distribute goods, along with concepts of distributive justice.

Mathematics began in the second year and continued for at least two years. Officially, for reasons that I will get to, it was focused on Euclidean plane and spherical geometry, including applications to navigation (by the end of the 18th century, more than 90% of all British navy captains were Scots because of their mathematical training) as well as Newtonian fluxional calculus. But if you look at the books that students were checking out, they were clearly learning a heavy dose of continental analysis as well.

All students also completed a minimum of two years of natural philosophy, including astronomy, mechanics, hydrostatics, hydrodynamics and optics. Late in the century, experimental electrostatics and magnetostatics were added. By the 1760s chemistry, the science of permanent changes in the constitution of matter, constituted its own course, which, though not strictly required, was taken by virtually every student at both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Indeed, for reasons that I will get to, Joseph Black’s chemistry course at Edinburgh often had up to 600 students while the required first course in moral philosophy usually had around 120.

Finally, students took at least one year of rhetoric and belles lettres (i.e., literature) and Latin, Greek or French.

The point is that the required elements of Scottish higher education were intended to produce what the Scots called a “man o’ parts”—a person capable of being an informed and active citizen—and the curriculum very self-consciously sought to delay and even to discourage specialization.

Moreover it included the latest developments in the natural sciences and mathematics, as well as what we now call the humanities and social sciences.

James Hutton, the distinguished geologist, directed his attention especially to the education of scientists:

Science, no doubt, promotes the arts of life; and it is natural for human wisdom to promote these arts. But, what are all the arts of life, or all the enjoyments of the animal nature, compared with the art of human happiness—an art which is only to be attained by education … Man must learn to know himself; he must see his station among created things; he must become a moral agent … This is what he has to learn, but it is only through studying things in general that he may arrive at this perfection of his nature. (Hutton 1794, v-vii)

Dugald Stewart, who taught the moral philosophy course at Edinburgh from 1785 to 1809 after serving as professor of mathematics for ten years characterized the aims of this education for all students:

It ought not to be the leading object of anyone to be just an eminent metaphysician, mathematician, or poet—A man who loses his sight improves the sensibility of his touch: but who would consent, for such recompense, to part with the pleasures he receives from his eyes. (Stewart 1859, 61)

Liberal education was so important to the Scots that Edinburgh’s early 19th century professor of mathematics, John Leslie, who used Continental analysis in his own work, and who was sufficiently distinguished that Gaspard Monge translated his work into French for use at the Ecole polytechnique, limited his teaching to geometry because he felt it was more important in a liberal education:

The study of mathematics holds forth two capital objectives; while it traces the beautiful relations of figure and quantity, it likewise accustoms the mind to the invaluable exercise of patient attention and accurate reasoning. Of these objects the last is perhaps the most important in a course of liberal education. For this purpose the geometry of the ancients is the most powerfully recommended, as bearing the stamp of that acute people, and displaying the finest specimens of logical deduction. Some of the propositions, indeed might be reached by a sort of algebraic calculation; but such an artificial mode of procedure gives only an apparent facility, and leaves no clear or permanent impression on the mind. (Leslie 1809, v-vi)

(Remember that what we call the calculus was not made rigorous until the work of Cauchy in the 1820s and Weierstrass in the 1840s.)

The emphasis on liberal education had been especially promoted and given a new justification by Stewart’s and Leslie’s moral philosophy teacher Adam Ferguson and by Adam Smith. Ferguson, commenting on the specialization which followed from the growing division of labor: Not only did the division of labor “contract and limit the views of the mind,” he wrote, it also tended to “succeed best under a total suppression of sentiment and reason.” “Manufactures, accordingly, prosper most where the mind is least consulted and where the workshop may, without any great effort of imagination, be considered as an engine, the parts of which are men.” (Ferguson 1980, 182–183)

Adam Smith, most famous today for his Wealth of Nations began his teaching career at Edinburgh, teaching rhetoric and belles lettre’s in 1748. He then transferred to Glasgow to become professor of moral philosophy from 1751 through 1763. He first gained fame in 1759 for his Theory of Moral Sentiments, intended at a textbook for the first year of the moral philosophy course. Though Smith left teaching in large part because he did not enjoy it, The Wealth of Nations was intended at least in part to be a text for the third year of the moral philosophy course. In it, after praising the division of labor for its ability to increase production, he discussed the negative consequences of the specialization that it encouraged in greater detail and with even greater vehemence than Ferguson, concluding that the mental development of both the workers and what we now call industrial capitalists was stunted by their extreme specialization:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the results too are always the same or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding … he naturally loses, therefore the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing any part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgement concerning many of the ordinary duties of … life. (Smith 1976, 782)

Ultimately, Smith argued, unless governments took an active role in combating the negative impact of the division of labor, especially by mandating some form of liberal education, the price of economic progress would be the creation of a laboring class that was “mutilated and deformed” in the most essential parts of its character. (Smith 1976, 788).

For Ferguson, Smith and Stewart, liberal education was seen as an antidote to a narrowness of vision and understanding, which followed from any form of specialization, but especially from the kind of specialization that seemed to be encouraged by modern industrialization.

This narrowness of vision not only robbed the worker and the industrialist of personal pleasure, but it made them incapable of participating intelligently as citizens capable of recognizing more than their own private interests in public decisions.

A group of Stewart’s students tried to implement forms of liberal education for those workers who could not afford to delay working long enough to attend the university through what came to be called the mechanics institute movement. George Birkbeck, founder of the first mechanics institute at Glasgow, taught the mechanical subjects that his students wanted to learn, but he taught them in a manner that promoted a thoughtful approach to their work, claiming that, “greater satisfaction in the execution of machinery must be experienced, when the uses to which it must be applied, and the principles on which it operates, are well understood, than where the manual part alone is known, the artisan remaining entirely ignorant of everything besides.” Similarly, Leonard Horner, who established the Edinburgh School of Arts, “taught the various branches of science … so that they [the mechanics] may better comprehend the reason for each individual operation that passes through their hands,” rather than offering a more vocational approach. Their goal was to enhance the quality of life and the capacity for citizenship of the working class, not simply or even primarily to make them better workers.

These views also became critically important during the late 18th and early 19th century in the United States because a huge fraction of the early American professorate and many of the early presidents of American colleges, were educated in Scotland and had been students of Ferguson, Smith or Dugald Stewart. They brought to American colleges the attitude toward liberal education embodied in the Scottish university curriculum and advocated by their teachers. So, well into the first decade of the 20th century, an American who graduated from a liberal arts college, regardless of her interests, could be expected to be sufficiently knowledgeable about current science and mathematics to be able to read and understand virtually any research publication, sufficiently knowledgeable about politics and political systems to serve in public office, to have an in-depth knowledge of at least one ancient or modern language other than English, and to write passable poetry.

That situation changed dramatically in the early decades of the 20th century. Virtually everywhere in Europe, higher education had became more specialized as knowledge increased and academics joined the division of labor bandwagon. On the continent during the 19th century, technical knowledge of the kind needed, for example, by engineers, had moved into special technical institutions, separated from traditional universities– into schools often labeled technische universitaten in Germany or into écoles de ponts et choses or the famed école polytechnique in France. With few exceptions, these institutions offered only technical courses.

And the U.S. followed suit, creating institutions like West Point, MIT and RPI in imitation of the école polytechnique, where technical training was largely divorced from issues connected with humanity, morality, politics and aesthetics.

Simultaneously, the mathematical and scientific content of liberal arts education for those interested in other subjects was dramatically reduced, as a system of elective majors replaced the old system of required courses. In America, unlike some places in Europe, a residue of the old liberal education was retained in both technical and liberal arts institutions in the form of general education requirements. But these rapidly and increasingly became so minimal that at present, a premier liberal arts college like Pomona requires only one semester with quantitative—i.e., mathematical—emphasis and one semester of a laboratory science—down from four or five yearlong courses in math and science in the Scottish Universities and at institutions such as the College of New Jersey (soon to be Princeton University) at the beginning of the 19th century—and this is fairly typical. It is, for example, virtually identical with the general education requirements at Princeton today, though Princeton does require two semesters of science, one with a lab.

A few institutions, including Saint John’s, Saint Mary’s and the University of Chicago, have maintained a much greater emphasis on what they view as liberal arts education, but it is often one more suited to the 18th century than to the 21st.

When my brother attended St Mary’s, for example, his required math courses were from Euclid’s Elements and Apollonius’s Conic Sections rather than from a contemporary calculus or linear algebra text, and one of his science courses used Ptolemy’s Almagest—a great education for a historian of ancient science—but hardly valuable in producing a citizen informed about contemporary issues in genetics, nanotechnology or global warming. By the same token, he learned ethics and moral philosophy from classical authors including Plato and Aristotle and political theory from such early modern authors as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. I may think that this kind of introduction to ethics, morals and politics is more valuable than learning mathematics from classical Greek authors, but it certainly lacked the critical perspectives of the Frankfurt School and the views of modern American political philosophers, such as John Rawls or Sheldon Wolin.

Fast forward to 1943 as Nazi Germany is overrunning Europe: an editorial in the London Observer profiles Albert Speer, minister of armaments and war production for the Third Reich and graduate in architecture from the Technical University of Berlin. It highlights what can happen when technical education is divorced from broader perspectives:

Speer is, in a sense, more important for Germany today than Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels or the generals. They all have, in a way, become the mere auxilliaries of the man who directs the giant power machine. Speer is not one of the flambuoyant and picturesque Nazis. Whether he has any other than conventional political opinions is unknown. He might have joined any other political party that gave him a job and a career. He is very much the average man, well dressed, civil, non-corrupt, very middle class in his style of life, with a wife and six children. Much less than any of the other German leaders does he stand for anything particularly German or particularly Nazi. He rather symbolizes a type which has become increasingly important in all belligerent countries; the pure technician, the classless, bright young man, without background, with no other original aim than to make his way in the world, and no other means than his technical and managerial ability. It is the lack of psychological and spiritual balast and the ease with which he handles the terrifying technical and organizational machinery of our age which makes this slight type go extremely far nowadays … This is their age; the Hitlers and the Himmlers we may get rid of, but the Speers, whatever happens to this particular man, will be long with us.

The take home message was that unless something were done to reconnect technical learning to liberal education, we would be producing ever more technicians without a moral compass.

In the aftermath of WWII, there were broad worries within the engineering and science communities in the United States regarding the growing power of modern technologies to impact both the physical and social worlds and concerns that only those with some degree of technical competence would be equipped to anticipate the consequences of technological innovations and be capable of offering cogent advice regarding their use. It was these concerns that Joe Platt hoped to address as he articulated the goals of Harvey Mudd College in its first recruiting brochure in September 1956:

The increasing knowledge and control we have of our physical surroundings is changing the way of life of peoples everywhere, economically, politically, and socially … The college is founded in the belief that a special need exists for physical scientists and engineers sufficiently broadly trained in the social sciences and the humanities to assume technical responsibility with an understanding of the relation of technology to the rest of our society.

Iredell Jenkins, philosopher and consultant to the first HMC curriculum study carried out in 1958, expressed many of the same concerns in more detail and in a way that reflected a dominant understanding of the relationships between science and society in America during the 1950s:

Until quite recently, scientists and engineers had their problems, goals, and values set for them by others; they merely possesses special skills that they put at the disposal of those who needed them and wanted them, taking little part in defining the uses that were to be made of these skills … It was only their technical education that was important to anyone except themselves. But now scientists and engineers occupy many of the positions of dominance in wide spread areas of society: in government agencies, the armed forces, industry, finance, education, etc.. Such men obviously play a large part in defining domestic and foreign policy, in settling the distribution of our natural resources, and in deciding toward which of various goals our engines will be directed … Under these conditions it obviously becomes a matter of great import that scientists and engineers be equipped to administer with intelligence the power and responsibility that are being forced upon them. This requires that their technical education be strongly reinforced with the philosophical, humanistic, and social disciplines … They have now got to be concerned with ends, with values, and with the total contents and conditions of human well-being. To deal with these effectively they must have an appreciation of man’s [sic] past achievements, a sense of the possibilities open before them, a realization of human limitations and a sympathy for human differences, the ability to [recognize and to] balance alternative values, and the informed courage to make the compromises and sacrifices that life and the world demand. (Harvey Mudd College 1958, 16–17)

While I am convinced that Jenkins vastly underestimated the extent to which science and engineering values had shaped social and political concerns for better or for worse at least from the beginning of the 20th century through such movements as Scientific Management and Eugenics, the pervasive presence of scientistic and technocratic values only makes it more important that technically trained leaders be aware of and try to understand alternative and complementary perspectives than Jenkins suggested.

Though Harvey Mudd was not alone among engineering and science schools in responding to such concerns, it was out in front of the curve in at least two ways.

First, it turned over a greater fraction of its total curriculum to issues in the humanities, social sciences and the arts than any other technically oriented institution, at the time and, second, it incorporated a large technical core that provided not only a set of mathematical and scientific tools for the use of engineers and scientists, but which did so in the liberal way pioneered by John Leslie and in the mechanics institutes—i.e., in a way that is rigorous, that includes an understanding of how each discipline approaches its own subject matter, that invites students to think about connections among disciplines and that promotes a broad range of technical competencies.

Since the 1950s many other engineering and science schools have moved in the curricular directions pioneered by HMC, but most elite liberal arts colleges and most American universities have not.

The reach of the HMC curriculum might often exceed its grasp. Not every graduate exhibits the wisdom that the curriculum has been designed to foster. But it has ever been thus. Some students always and everywhere rebel against the goals of the professorate. In 18th-century Scotland, where a degree was much less important in procuring a job than it is now, many—indeed, more than half of the students who entered the Universities at Edinburgh and Glasgow—never intended to get a degree. They took the courses they wanted—usually those in mathematics and chemistry—and then left the University without a degree, which is how there could be 600 students in chemistry and only 120 in moral philosophy.

HMC does substantially better. One need only consider the careers of those who the alumni association has recognized as outstanding alumni to see that we have produced humane leaders in education, mathematics, science, technology, the corporate world, politics and the world of non-governmental social service. One could only wish that scientists and other professionals educated in liberal arts colleges and universities received the same breadth and liberality of education.

In the recent debacles in the world of finance, the American public has been forced to watch as a series of professional economists, lawyers, accountants, managers, business executives and other highly educated personnel lay bare an appalling lack of psychological and spiritual ballast—a lack of awareness and concern for moral and ethical issues.

American liberal arts colleges and universities today breed ever more sophisticated professional specialists; yet few of these specialists, who have tremendous know how have had even half of the exposure to ethical and aesthetic judgements, notions like “responsibility,” “citizenship,” “compassion” and the tragic and comic dimensions of life, as the average Harvey Mudd graduate.

If you are looking for genuine liberal education in America today, you can stop looking. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, you found it here at Harvey Mudd College.

As you go off to engage further with Presentation Days and Projects Day activities, I urge you to consider how they contribute not just to your professional development, but also to your liberal education.

Dick Olson '62

Richard Olson ‘62 (physics) is professor of history emeritus at Harvey Mudd College. His research and teaching focuses on the history of science, with a special emphasis on the interactions between the natural sciences and other cultural domains, including those of religion, political ideology, and issues of gender and ethnicity.


Ferguson, Adam, 1980 [reprint of 1767 edn.]. An Essay on the History of Civil Society. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.

Harvey Mudd College, Catalog, 1956.

Harvey Mudd College, 1958. “Curriculum Study, Harvey Mudd College, Science and Engineering,” June 30 – August 9, 1958.

Hutton, James, 1794. Dissertations on Light, Heat, and Fire. Edinburgh: Cadell and Davies.

Leslie, John, 1809. Elements of Geometry. Edinburgh: np.London Observer, 1943.

Smith, Adam, 1976 [from 1776 original]. An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of Wealth of Nations. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Stewart, Dugald, 1859. The Collected Works of Dugald Stewart, Sir William Hamilton, ed., Edinburgh: Thomas Constable and Company.