Can the Liberal Arts Help Fight Climate Change? This Funder Thinks So

Back in September, we provided a handy Cliffs Notes summary of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's goals for higher education as articulated by VP Mariët Westermann. Understanding these goals in theory is one thing. Understanding them in practice is another. Which is why I found recent news out of Waterville, Maine rather interesting. 

Colby College received an $800,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to support the "development of a campus-wide multidisciplinary initiative in environmental humanities" that includes a partnership with the college's esteemed Environmental Studies Program. Their gift is predicated on the belief that the liberal arts can support the study of "the environment and human responses to environmental change."

Needless to say, it's an exciting proposition that, while rather obvious to us, may make some STEM proponents' heads explode. Therefore, before we look at the specifics of the grant, it's important to first explore the underlying thematics.

As we noted in an early September post titled "Can the Liberal Arts Produce World-Class Scientists? This Campus Donor Thinks So," astute grantmakers realize that the liberal arts—and more to the point, the liberal arts skillset—have a lot to teach the sciences. In other words, the world needs people who can communicate effectively, think critically, and grasp the nuances of life's ambiguities.

In this case of that post, Sarah Lawrence College announced a $2 million gift from alumna Suzanne Salter Arkin of Manhattan to create the Suzanne Salter Arkin Science Endowment, dedicated to attracting outstanding science students who want to pursue serious individual study of science while engaging with the arts, humanities, language, literature, and the social sciences in a liberal arts institution. The idea, again, being that the liberal arts and the sciences can not only happily co-exist, but complement each other. 

Which brings us back to the similar-in-spirit Environmental Studies Program at Colby. According to the school, the multidisciplinary program has a "strong focus on the natural and social sciences" and has focused on "pressing global issues, tying academic training with field research and partnering with preeminent institutions, including the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences."

Enter Mellon, the liberal arts matchmaker. Colby's program is just the kind of stuff they're looking for. Indeed, Mellon's Westermann said that one of her organization's primary strategic goals is fostering "collaborations among research universities, liberal arts colleges, and other cultural and educational institutions." 

And so Mellon's gift will allow the school to bring the "strengths of the college's arts and humanities programs to bear on these pressing issues." Colby scholars—both scientists and humanists—will "collaborate on innovative solutions to global environmental challenges, connecting the liberal arts to the world."  

What's more, since "all philanthropy is personal" (that's actually not true), the gift also soothes my own frustrated soul. Some of my previous tirades have centered on the ridiculous idea that funders must put STEM initiatives in one pile and liberal arts ones in another, as if the two are completely unrelated and shall never interact. It's inane stuff. In a recent piece in the New York Review of Books, Rana Foroohar, assistant managing editor for Time magazine,validates my irritation before effectively shutting down this line of thinking:

Reconsidering and reforming our system of higher education should move beyond debates about whether STEM skills trump liberal arts. We need both, not only become it's impossible to predict exactly what the jobs of the future will be, but also because critical thinking in any field is the most important measure of economic and civic success.

Mellon obviously gets this. Here's hoping other grantmakers will soon have their own (figurative) Road to Damascus moment.