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Why STEM Majors Take Liberal Arts Classes at RIT

WiCyS@RIT at 2021 International Women in Cybersecurity (WiCyS) Denver conference, used on article about liberal arts.


This post explains some of the misconceptions around liberal arts, and why I am taking extra liberal arts classes as a Computing Security and Computer Science double major. Furthermore, I explain how I am using the magic course load formula to broaden my horizons with electives. 

What are liberal arts?

The phrase liberal arts today does not refer to The Arts, or even the humanities; it is a broader concept. In fact, in phrases like liberal arts core, or liberal arts education, the word arts is meant to encompass the humanities, and the social sciences, and the natural and physical sciences, including mathematics.

The phrase liberal education does not refer to a curriculum that contrasts with a conservative education; it refers to a curriculum designed to provide students with the knowledge and abilities to become successful, productive members of a free society. It provides them the opportunity to practice free-thinking. (Remember, liberal as in free, as opposed to constrained or subjugated.) It teaches them how to think critically, communicate clearly, analyze and solve complex problems, appreciate others, understand the physical world, and be prepared to learn continuously so they can work with others and on their own to meet the challenges of the future.”

What the ‘liberal’ in ‘liberal arts’ actually means by Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post

History of liberal arts education

The history of a liberal arts education dates back to classical antiquity. Stemming from the Latin word ‘liberalis,’ meaning “appropriate for free men,” a liberal arts education was a course of study considered essential for free citizens of Greece and Rome. In the minds of the ancient Greeks and Romans, a liberal arts education was necessary for a human being to be free. On the other hand, vocational or technical studies were often thought to best fit non-free members of society or slaves.

To those fortunate enough to be awarded a liberal arts education, their education emphasized civic duty and the development of the whole human being to their full potential through the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Ultimately, the main goal for free citizens of Greece and Rome was to participate in civic life. Therefore studies in liberal arts, such as grammar, rhetoric, and logic, reflected the skills necessary for civic duty.

During medieval times subject matter was extended to include arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In modern times, liberal arts colleges today also strive to develop the whole human being by instructing students in a wide range of subjects and courses. As a result, the curriculum of these liberal arts colleges often focus on a range of subjects in the arts, humanities, social sciences, science, and mathematics.

History of a Liberal Arts Education by the Liberal Arts College Review

Liberal arts schools versus RIT

Many liberal arts colleges in the United States fill their freshman and sophomore academic curricula around building a strong foundation in English, history, music, natural sciences, etc.. Then, students’ junior and senior years are usually spent in their major. For example, a CS student at a typical liberal arts college will spend two years taking electives—science, history, language, and math—before spending two years on computer science.

Although liberal arts classes may not directly contribute to students’ careers, they often give students a broader skill set and problem solving abilities (Newton). Liberal arts students are often better communicators. They are more persuasive and worldly, making it easier for them to connect problems, trends, ideas and experiences (Deming). 

RIT has a liberal arts college, but most students do not follow a liberal arts curriculum. This is both a blessing and a curse. STEM students that dislike liberal arts classes do not need to take many. At the same time, students that want to take them classes sometimes struggle to find space in their schedule.

Although RIT may beat liberal arts schools in technical capabilities, life is technical, cultural, and emotional. In other words, RIT students specialize in their field, but some critics argue that they may lack the creative and critical thinking skills that liberal arts students possess. As a result, RIT students may want to take liberal arts into their own hands by taking those classes.

Just because RIT is not classified as a liberal arts college does not mean that it does not offer liberal arts classes.

My experience

I experienced the effects of liberal arts education in high school. The curriculum was based on the open sharing of information through emphasizing harkness discussions, and promoting well-roundedness. 

Although my high school’s focus on liberal arts often agitated me as a robotics student, I realized how important communication skills and history are after coming to RIT. I find it much easier to give presentations because I have done so many. I excel at and enjoy debate and political discussions. Also, I can easily talk to professors, and employers because my high school taught me how to handle these situations.

However, these skills take practice and require maintenance in order to keep them. Furthermore, I am not a perfect communicator, so I still have a lot to learn. As a result, I want to ensure I can develop and maintain my communication, cultural and life skills in college. 

I am doing this through my immersion, minor, and random classes.

Immersions and minors

As part of their requirements, bachelor’s degree students must complete an immersion—a concentration of three courses in a particular area. These courses support deeper learning within a focus area and are used to meet RIT’s general education requirements. In many cases, an immersion can lead to a minor with the addition of two courses. However, not all minors have a corresponding immersion and vice versa.

What are immersions at RIT?

I love reading and writing, so I am doing my immersion in FOSS. Eventually, I will convert my immersion to a FOSS and Free Culture minor. Despite the practical and STEM-y name, FOSS electives are English, history and business classes; they are liberal arts classes that deal with computers.

Three example FOSS courses

1. Free & Open Source Culture

Using a variety of historical and theoretical readings, students in ENGL-450 will note how law and commerce have come to shape the prevailing cultural norms surrounding authorship, while also examining lesser known models of collaborative and distributed authoring practices. This background will inform our study of the rapid social transformations wrought by media technologies in last two centuries, culminating with the challenges and opportunities brought forth by digital media, mobile communications and networked computing. Students will learn about the role of software in highlighting changing authorship practices, facilitating new business and economic models and providing a foundation for conceiving of open source, open access, participatory, peer-to-peer and Free (as in speech, not beer) cultures.

2. Legal and Business Aspects of FOSS

The entertainment and software industries are grappling with the impacts of free software digital distribution. Agile development, 3D printing, the Internet and other technologies are changing the face of how business is done, as well as what business can charge for and hold onto. Disruptive technologies, emerging interfaces, and real-time, on-demand product creation and distribution are transforming our entertainment, telecommunications and manufacturing landscapes. This course (IGME-583) will examine the impacts of these new technologies and the new thinking that are taking us into these new worlds.

3. Intercultural Communication

Intercultural communication (COMM-304) provides an examination of the role of culture in face-to-face interaction. Students may find a basic background in communication, anthropology, or psychology useful.

Random classes

Each student at RIT has to take free electives in order to graduate. I already completed the free electives I need in order to graduate. In order to prevent confusion, I am referring to unnecessary free electives as “random classes.”

Random classes I am taking are public speaking, negotiation, French I (maybe), and global finance. I plan on studying global finance during a 3-week study abroad trip!


Portrait of Olivia Gallucci in garden, used in LNP article.

Written by Olivia Gallucci

Olivia is an honors student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She writes about security, open source software, and professional development.