I took part in a small, side liberal arts program while doing my engineering degree at USC. While I do buy the “technology and people” defense of a liberal arts education, I think it is possible to argue something more fundamental.

I think the idea that there is some distinction at the pure idea level between different academic subjects is false. In data engineering, for instance, people seem to really really underestimate the creativity involved in coming up with different weighting rules, interpolation strategies, etc. How you choose and set very basic parameters in a signal processing system is very important. Deep down this has been treated as a question of fitting rules to groups of data points vs. the individual (statistically, a “bias-variance” tradeoff), which is more of a classical liberal arts question.

You could say very similar things about systems engineering. Many good engineers believe that organizing and structuring your system can be as much of an art as a science. Building a circuit or software system elegantly may allow the system diagrams to look nice, but also for it work better and have fewer bugs when you go to test it.

It’s no accident that some of the best computer vision algorithms today make use of ideas from pointillism, or that Bayesianism lies at the root of some of the most powerful data analytic systems. Being able to manipulate these ideas at will is what advances engineering: building new systems.

There are countless examples of some of the most powerful engineering frameworks being influenced by earlier ideas in other fields. Game theory (a theory of economics) is at the current state of the art of network optimization, building power management, and multi-robot coordination. The same framework is being used to understand bacteria growth and counter possible bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

“Technical skills” and “scientific thinking” are often parameterized by deeper philosophical ideas that have their original basis in liberal arts. One could even make the stronger claim that often times “technical skills” are no more than a wrapper and packaging of much deeper original ideas. “Scientific thinking” is not about cleaning test tubes but about the much harder problems of hypothesis generation and the interpretation of experiments which have their treatment in scientific philosophy.

None of the arguments I’ve advanced has anything to do with technology’s application to society or people, which I think is the weaker defense of liberal arts with respect to STEM. That rhetoric serves more to convert from engineering to business, and gives credence to the erroneous idea that people should move from developing fundamental technology (“the engineering problem”) to simply applying already created technology to society (“the business problem”). As an engineer, I am not a fan. A common advocacy is to change STEM to STEAM to include the arts. From a “pure engineering” perspective, I would say STEAM is a redundant acronym — STEM is technically STEM(A), an unfactorable function of liberal arts.

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