Beyond Two Cultures: The Sciences as Liberal Arts

The Fifth Annual Conversation on the Liberal Arts

February 18-19, 2005




Conversation Overview


A persistent challenge for liberal arts education is the role of the sciences.  No doubt that role can be central, but too often the liberal arts are identified with the humanities, marginalizing the sciences in a liberal arts education, despite the fact that scientific inquiry has tremendous impact on how we see ourselves, and the meaning and purpose of our lives—questions essential to a liberal arts education.  Add to that the fact that the demands of graduate programs in science often constrain undergraduate science education in ways that make it difficult for the science curriculum to meet the broader goals of a liberal arts education, and it can become very difficult to establish the sciences as a central part of a coherent undergraduate liberal arts education.



The fifth annual Conversation on the Liberal Arts tackled this issue—what roles can the sciences play in a liberal arts education?  We addressed both more theoretical questions, such as how the sciences help us interpret the meaning and value of our lives, to more pragmatic questions like how to teach the sciences as a part of a liberal arts curriculum, to questions of academic culture like how to overcome the persistent cultural divide between scientists and humanists.


Our speakers included: S. James Gates, John S. Toll Professor and Director of Center for String & Particle Theory at the University of Maryland , a leading figure in the development of string theory and articulate spokesperson for the importance of science education for our society. To learn more about Dr. Gates, Dame Gillian Beer, King Edward VII Emerita Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge , whose work has explored the impact of major 19th and 20th century scientific developments on broader cultural movements. To learn more about Dame Beer, and Jon Christensen, former Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University and coordinator of the recent Sea of Cortez Expedition and Education Project recreating the voyage taken by John Steinbeck and marine biologist Edward Rickets examining marine life along the coast of the Baja Peninsula. To learn more about the Sea of Cortez Expedition , visit their site at


Registration of the conversation on the liberal arts was limited to college and university faculty and administrators. However, Jon Christensen’s presentation was open to the public at Fess Parker’s Doubeltree Hotel in Santa Barbara.