Harvey Mudd College as the Centre of Liberal Arts Education

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Harvey Mudd College (HMC) is a liberal arts institution, whose “curriculum was designed to create scientists and engineers with unusual breadth in their technical education and a firm academic grounding in the humanities, social sciences and arts [HSA]” (Catalogue, 26). However, many people don’t fully understand whether HMC should be counted as a liberal arts college since its STEM courses outweigh HSA courses. They may believe liberal arts institution should emphasize reading, writing, and discussion of humanities. But in the article “Playful Acts of Imagination,” scholar Jonathan Z. Smith states that the contents of courses are not the core of a liberal arts education (17). What matters most is whether students learn to interpret things and be responsible for their interpretations (17). Thus, Harvey Mudd College qualifies as a liberal arts institution because its STEM courses and HSA courses cultivate students’ ability to understand a problem from multiple perspectives and to understand the consequences of their solutions.

HMC’s STEM courses foster students’ capacity for solving problems from both technical perspectives and social perspectives. HMC’s students have to take “Probability and Statistics” in the first semester, and it requires students to apply the knowledge they learn from class to “analyzing real data sets” (Catalogue, 89). The final project of this class when I took it was to ask students to interpret the data of a controversial crime policy: stop-question-frisk in New York City. Students were expected to make arguments about whether or not they supported the policy based on their analysis of the multiple data sets. They might have different understandings of the policy because of making different choices about analyzing the data. As a result, the course not only teaches students mathematical formulas like a traditional STEM course would, but also fosters students’ ability to interpret data and consider problems through social perspectives. That meets Smith’s criteria of a liberal arts education. He claims that, “teachers [should be] chiefly engaged in playfully enlarging the minds and perspectives of the young” (14). At HMC, professors encourage students to express their own understandings rather than give a fixed answer to a question. Although HMC puts emphasis on STEM courses, those STEM courses still enable students to improve their critical thinking and teach them to interpret facts from different perspectives.

At the same time, the HSA curriculum enables students to be aware of the consequences of the interpretations they make. In the 1958 HMC “Curriculum Study,” the founders of HMC state that one of the most significant objectives of HSA study is to teach students “what they should do” when they become leaders and control power to make policies (15). That means the main purpose of HSA courses is not to cultivate students’ ability to read and write or ask them to memorize. Instead, the curriculum emphasizes that students should consider more consequences when they make decisions. For example, HMC provides a course named “Ethical Issues in Science and Engineering.” It discusses the responsibility of engineers and scientists to “foresee and prevent the harm” of ethical problems that research and experiments bring (Catalogue, 80). This course makes students realize their social responsibilities when they confront any decision making and understand the potential influence they may exert on society. In his article, Smith claims student should “make responsible decisions” (18). HSA courses force students to consider not only different aspects of problems but also the outcomes of decisions, which fulfills Smith description of a college education. Even though HMC does not required as many HSA courses as other liberal arts college, students still learn to understand the impact of their decisions. The combination of STEM courses and HSA courses lets students gain the ability to interpret problems from both technical perspectives and social perspectives. Moreover, they learn to make consequential and responsible decisions based on their interpretations. Since HMC teaches students the same skills and abilities as other liberal arts college, HMC qualifies as a liberal arts institution.

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