Tech Forward: Liberal Arts Education in a Technological University

Drone image of Michigan Tech campus in winter
Drone image of Michigan Tech campus in winter
David Hemmer, dean of the College of Sciences and Arts, explains why the liberal arts are integral to Michigan Tech's success as a university.

Michigan Technological University’s thought leaders share their ideas to prepare students and the University for a rapidly changing future. David Hemmer, dean of the College of Sciences and Arts, explains the importance of the liberal arts to the University’s success.

Michigan Tech is often called an “engineering school.” So why should it value and support a dynamic College of Sciences and Arts (CSA)? The easy answer is to teach engineering students foundational math and science classes. But what then of the social sciences, arts and humanities? “Our engineers need to be well rounded,” is the all-too-familiar response.

But we are not a “school of engineering” or a “college of mines” or a “polytechnic institute.” We’re a comprehensive technological university. CSA, made up of dedicated teachers who are often world-class scholars, plays a critical part in Tech’s success as a university. We enroll 1,550 of our own students while providing vital instruction for every degree program on campus, producing remarkable scholarship and bringing a wealth of artistic and cultural events to our campus and community.

Sciences and Arts at a Technological University

Faculty in every CSA department embrace their place in a technological university. Much of their work is directly technology related: The humanities department hosts a celebrated program in scientific and technical communication; other scholars explore the interaction of culture with technological change, and how new technologies affect distinct cultures differently. Students in cognitive and learning sciences study the relationships between, and interactions of, technology with humans. Our visual and performing arts department has cutting-edge programs in technical theater and sound design.

Our work also extends beyond technology. More than 100 cadets in the Army and Air Force ROTC testify to Tech’s commitment to our armed services. Faculty in social sciences study environmental policy and, consistent with Tech’s location, offer a unique and internationally recognized graduate program in industrial heritage and archaeology.

But the role of CSA is still so much more! Our teaching and scholarship go far beyond narrow conceptions of technology. While we train our students today in artificial intelligence and big data, we need to prepare them to, 20 years from now, acquire skills we cannot envision today. 

As Hitachi CEO Brian Householder said, “The value add of the human worker will focus on essentially enduring human skills such as supervision, creativity and emotional intelligence.” Our role at Tech is to nurture these traits, to produce students able to handle social, cultural and technological upheaval, to put these changes in a historical context, to pursue a career that doesn’t just pay well, but offers personal fulfillment.

Last month Tech hosted an industry panel on the disruptive forces of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). There were five references to poetry! But the references were superficial—poetry helping to expand the minds of engineers, general education serving to polish the rough edges of our scientists. One panelist told me that taking more humanities classes would help “de-nerdify” the engineers. The mission of the university is not to expose the engineer to poetry, but to give her the tools to become a poet!

As I meet our successful alumni, I hear the same message repeatedly. Our students need to be flexible, to be able to learn new skills, to adapt to a changing workplace, to communicate well, to work in teams, to understand other cultures. We must prepare graduates for whatever the future holds, and broaden our focus even wider than what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Time after time over history authors have declared a new era, a time of unprecedented technological change. “This time is different!” Unique to the current era, we are told, is that technology is changing “exponentially.” As a mathematician, I know anything changing at a constant rate grows exponentially; one percent annual growth is exponential growth. (If it is your salary, it may not feel that way!)

In the same vein, technological evolution should not be the sole driver of our research mission. Breakthroughs in cancer research, in astrophysics, in pure mathematics, in environmental sciences, and others may or may not require input from artificial intelligence or big data. Research in the College goes well beyond the 4IR: searching for dark matter, understanding watersheds, studying symmetric functions, investigating surface chemistry. Our historians and humanists study the relationship between politics and technology, and challenge the often-unstated assumption that new technology always represents progress.

Educating the passionate student

I am proud of the variety of courses and program offerings in CSA departments, but for many students, these offerings are not being fully exploited. I have been dismayed to discover how lengthy many of our degree programs are, sometimes allowing students only a single free elective over four years! For most of our students, this will be the only time in their lives when they are readily able to explore disciplines outside their own, to interact with students and scholars with entirely different perspectives. During the panel, David House ’65 argued passionately that our students “need more electives…need more breadth.” I encourage the Tech community to enable all our students to explore a second passion, add a minor, study abroad, learn a new language, take an additional class with a beloved faculty member. This is a core feature of the liberal arts.

Thinking back on my time studying mathematics at Dartmouth, the courses I remember most are not calculus or abstract algebra. I remember enjoying Religions of India so much I followed up with Buddhism in South Asia. I took Philosophy of Medicine with C. Everett Koop as a guest lecturer. I had room to both complete my degree and to enjoy exploring other disciplines. Every Tech student deserves the same opportunity; and this need not require killing the golden goose of our job placement rate. The most recent University view-book shows 100 percent job placement for our humanities and VPA graduates. I wish every one of our 125+ credit hour BS degrees could free up room for three or four electives, so students can explore a second passion.

As Steve Jobs once said, “Technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.