TaskForce Essay: The Need of Liberal Education for Science and Engineering

July 10th, 2015 | by MuslimScience
TaskForce Essay: The Need of Liberal Education for Science and Engineering
July 2015

Shoaib Zaidi, Professor and Dean, School of Science and Engineering,
Habib University

Executive Summary

Cognizant of the pitiful state of tertiary science and engineering education in Pakistan, Habib University’s School of Science and Engineering is a bold and essential, mission driven initiative to identify and implement strategies, philosophies and practices to improve this morass. An intertwined, contextualized liberal arts centric STEM education is our best hope for moving forward. Our graduates will have the competence to be globally effective and the confidence and awareness to understand societies and cultures to assess and identify needs and design and deliver relevant, sustainable solutions. They will be proficient in the practice of their disciplines but more importantly will be able to act at the interfaces with other disciplines and with societies.

Background & Motivation

Higher education has existed in Pakistan since before its creation. Punjab University, King Edward Medical College, NED Engineering and several other colleges were all started during before Independence in 1947. Even with this history, Pakistan ranks 127th in the 2014-2015 World Economic Forum’s category of “Higher Education and Training”. It must be noted that this pitiful situation still persists even after the industrious and well-funded efforts of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission since 2002. Much as we laud improvements, we slipped to 127th in 2014-2015 from 122nd in 2010 and 124th in 2012-2013. This is a crisis. One that has perpetuated for decades and engulfed our practices, our expectations, our imagination and perhaps the most damaging of all, our hopes. Clearly all is not well and something is missing.

What are the missing elements? Are our engineers and scientist being trained to meet their expected roles? Why do we take are best and brightest and subject them to substandard and incomplete education? Are our graduates able to understand the needs of their societies or cultures? Are they aware of the ground realities and the resources? Can they work with individuals from other disciplines? Are they the instruments of positive change we sorely need?

Fortunately, today, we are able to learn from the experience and reflections of others. In the United States, identification that sole focus on engineering education was a key factor in limited the graduates effectiveness occurred several decades ago. These anxieties relating to effectiveness of engineers were proposed to be tackled by accreditation reforms amongst other efforts. ABET, introduced “Outcomes based Education” in 1997 with the promise of moving towards holistic education. Liberal arts education forms the core of many such initiatives. Such positions are stated in Stanford University’s statements:

The mission of the Department of Electrical Engineering is to augment the liberal education expected of all Stanford undergraduates,


Leading universities like Stanford and MIT espouse a holistic, liberal arts education. One where one’s science and engineering education enhances skills developed through the liberal arts. There is promise in following such an approach.

Social Science and Humanities in Pakistan

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, the situation is dire. For several decades, the lesser able students have been directed towards social sciences and humanities. As these students graduated and became teachers, they encountered intakes of lesser able students. Social Science and Humanities are generally of poor quality and widely accepted as such both in academia and the wider society. Recent attempts to broaden higher education by including social sciences and humanities have been cursorily implemented. The quality of faculty is generally poor and students, conditioned by the expectations and habits of their elders, expend minimal efforts in such areas. In engineering schools, humanities and social sciences are considered peripheral or even distractive. The development of reading, writing, analysis, synthesis and expression, are neither expected nor demanded.

Liberal Arts in Science and Engineering in the United States

One noted feature of the American education model is its insistence of a broad education. Initiative’s like ABET were intended to move science and engineering education in the right direction. Nearly two decades later, it is apparent that what happened at many engineering schools was mostly a remapping of the previous distribution requirements to meet new accreditation terms. They meet the letter but not the spirit of the intended reforms. What are thus needed are not just remapping, but reimagining of science and engineering education and how it connects with societies, cultures and communities. Schools that have internalized the importance of liberal arts for the science and engineering are the ones ascending in effectiveness, rankings and prestige. Harvey Mudd, Olin, Stanford and MIT all place great emphasis on holistic learning and engagement with the real world.

The Need for Awareness and Ability to Comprehend

To remain relevant in the fast changing world today, it is essential to practice as an effective scientist or engineer. Acquiring awareness of the needs, the resources, the outcomes, their impacts (both short and long term), identifying the stakeholders, understanding their concerns, gathering and assimilating knowledge and content from varied sources, synthesizing this into a clear ideas, formulating implementable action paths, communicating convincingly to generate support are but a few of the skills needed. How many engineering or science programs focus adequately on ensuring such skills develop in their graduates?

Liberal Arts for Developing Essential Critical Thinking Skills

An intertwined liberal arts education is the ideal companion to a rigorous science and engineering education for forming these essential skills in tomorrow’s science and engineering graduates. Objective questions have a sole correct answer and the entire class is expected to reach the same destination. In contrast, social sciences and humanities demand individualized creative responses. It is not unfathomable to imagine two students, from identical backgrounds and education, even being identical twins, answering a social science question with widely varying ideas and support. Whilst one may focus on historical traditions, the other may offer economic motives as the reason. Both of the answers, if well supported and well presented may get the coveted “A” grade. Such situations for individualized responses are uncommon in typical science and engineering curricula. However, it is through such practice of individual thought that one matures critical thinking skills.

The Era of Complexity

We live in a complex world. Dealing with the richness and complexity of human experience is necessary for any educated person. The liberal arts education introduces a range of ideas from a vast array of disciplines. These build the foundations needed to handle the interdisciplinary challenges our science and engineering graduates will face. The capacity of viewing situations from several different viewpoints to understand the key issues and their underlying causes, identifying needed resources and the expense of acquiring them, executing the carefully planed implementations demand familiarity with complexity. Withouta thorough understanding of science and engineering, there is no effectiveness but with only an understanding of science and engineering, the effectiveness is inadequate.

In the United States, both the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) have voiced the need for reforms in science and engineering education and articulated the paths forward. NAE’s “Engineer of 2020” vision moves beyond ABET’s “a-k” outcomes to educate holistically. The goal is holistically trained graduates who can understand their complex worlds and be effective in creating suitable solutions. NAS’s efforts, especially during Dr. Bruce Alberts’ tenure, to move towards inquiry based science education bolster such skills enhancement.

The Case for Liberal Arts Centric Science and Engineering Education

Habib University started classes in the fall of 2015. Unencumbered by legacy, it was able to survey and adopt from best global practices. For the School of Science and Engineering, as discussed above, there is overwhelming substantiation of the need for a liberal arts centric education. It is not enough just to have the required courses, as that is a common model, but much more important is the establishment of core institutional beliefs, where non-technical competence and interconnectedness are valued, championed and celebrated. These practices are true to the intention and spirit of ABET reforms and provide essential balance and reinforcing support amongst the liberal arts and STEM. This is the best way forward for not only Habib but also others mired in the stagnant model of yesteryear.

Contextualizing Liberal Arts – The need for addressing inheritance and clarifying identity

What makes Habib’s approach even more special is the nature of our liberal arts. The issue of inheritance or rather the gaping vacuum of inheritance is common in education in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Government mandated courses in Pakistan Studies and Islamiayat have been the norm for almost four decades in Pakistan. The content is sparse and does not always stand to academic or intellectual scrutiny and the implementation mostly cursory. Students are smart and they know when something is not being done with seriousness or rigour. Providing such education to the brightest fortunate few who get tertiary education does not address issues of alienation amongst our youth. There is clear evidence of radicalization occurring in our medical, engineering and business schools and one reason is the lack of truth and effort in teaching about one’s inheritance and thus clarifying questions about one’s identity. When this is not done, insidious ideologies find fertile environments to thrive and later, wreak havoc.

The Contextualized Habib Liberal Arts Experience

There is no doubt that liberal arts enhance the effectiveness of a STEM education but the liberal arts model of Habib goes further. It is contextualized to be relevant and addresses the critical importance of inheritance. Some salient features of the contextualized Habib core are described:

  • The initial course “Rhetoric and Communication” develops the ability to read and comprehend sophisticated writings and ideas. This is the first time many of them have such exposure.
  • “What is Modernity” analyzes modern life and helps our students understand their era. This is especially important for understanding post-colonial societies where today many Muslims reside.
  • The emergence and formation of nation-states and our history are addressed in “Pakistan and Modern South Asia”. Through such studies, they are better able to understand issues in society.
  • Islam has a rich history that is studied in the two-course sequence of “Hikma I & II – History of Islamic Thought”. It is not uncommon for one to experience a “History of Western Thought” or similar course at many great institutions in the West. The same rigor, effort and diligence is expended on readings from Islamic sages and others who have shaped Islamic thoughts, philosophy and discussions.
  • English is the medium of instruction for most of the affluent and the educated in Pakistan. This creates a distance and foreignness with their own language and literature, especially to its modern and contemporary writers and works. “Jehan-e- Urdu (The World of Urdu)” is designed to both familiarize and develop appreciation of Urdu in our students.

A more detailed description of the core is placed at the rear of this article.

Conclusion A broad, liberal arts centric education is best for preparing our students to understand and competently navigate the increasingly complex world Contextualizing such an education are opportunities to address important issues of inheritance. When inheritance is ignored, the connection with ones past is broken. Such vacuums and lack of knowledge allow insidious fabrications and myths to emerge and invent new dangerous narratives.

In Muslim and other post-colonial societies, the yearning for what can be called an identity is emerging as colonial shadows wane. During such transitions, turmoil is not unlikely. Thus it is even more important that the youth, the ones most likely to be incited and radicalized, are provided an education that through its contextualized and rigorous curriculum and pedagogy proclaims a rich inheritance and where knowledge of ones history and culture can withstand and overcome falsehoods.


Habib University is a mission driven endeavor where debate and discussion are the norm. There are many without whom I could not have had this awareness. Our President, Mr. Wasif Rizvi and the Dr. Nauman Naqvi, Dean of the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences have unwaveringly championed contextualized liberal arts education for Pakistan.

Our daily work can consume us. Dr. Athar Osama is the glue which has brought us together to think and to disseminate findings and recommendations about these important matters.

Habib University’s Seven Forms of Thought

(Habib Liberal Core description compiled from documents produced and shared by Dr. Nauman Naqvi, Dean of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences and Director of the Habib Core)

Seven Forms of Thought/Action reflect the particular pedagogical vision and the character of the faculty of Habib University (HU). Below are brief descriptions and justifications of the Forms of Thought/Action that reflect and will govern curricular production at Habib. All students at HU are required to take a determined minimum of courses under each form of thought/action.

Historical & Social Thought (2 courses):

The unprecedented change in the pace of modernity and the growing complexity of modern society makes it imperative for historical and social thought to be studied and researched. All undergraduates have to take two courses under this Form of Thought.

Course 1: CORE 102: What Is Modernity?

No one in the medieval world thought they were ‘medieval.’ The belief that we live in a distinct period of human history – that of ‘modernity’ – sets us apart from all premodern peoples. It is thus imperative for understanding both ourselves and our world to ask the question: What is it to be modern?

The modern age has radically transformed all aspects of our lives, which is why the question of modernity has become a central concern across a range of disciplines in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This course is thus designed as a multidisciplinary study of key texts that illuminate the culture of modern life, existence and society. Key themes covered by the course include the nature of power and politics, the creation of economy, the role of science, technology and the media, the impact of modernity on the environment and changes caused by modernity in the realms of religious thought and gender relations.

What is Modernity? is a gateway course for Habib University’s flagship Liberal Core Curriculum. Through critical and intensive engagement with both classic and contemporary texts, students will gain a sophisticated understanding of both themselves and their world that will be further refined throughout the Liberal Core.

Course 2: CORE 201: Pakistan & Modern South Asia

Nation-states – including that of Pakistan – emerged in the region of South Asia in the middle of the 20th century. With a special focus on the emergence and trajectory of Indo-Muslim nationalism and the creation of Pakistan, this course is a conspectus of the modern history of South Asia from the colonial period, including the rise of anti-colonial nationalism and decolonization, to the Cold War and the contemporary period of turmoil and transformation.

Philosophical Thought (2 courses)

The study of philosophy has traditionally been at the heart of liberal core curricula. Philosophical thought serves to enhance both the rigor, and the reflective powers of the student, essential to concept-generation and innovation in all fields. Habib University’s flagship two-semester course sequence in regional and global humanities, Hikma I & II, takes the students to the pre-modern and ancient worlds of philosophy, religion, literature and art that remain our heritage.

Courses 1 & 2: CORE 202 & 301: Hikma I & II – History of Islamic Thought

Bridging the students’ crucial sophomore and junior-years, this sequence takes our students to the next level of humanistic study and conceptualization. The course takes an expansive world-historical and global view of the region’s rich heritage of Islamic thought in its intense and distinctive engagement with both Greek antiquity and the other Abrahamic traditions, and ambient regional traditions, such as Buddhism and the Bhakti. The course reads the rich texts emanating from this encounter in Muslim thinkers such as Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Suhrawardi and Mulla Sadra, as well as philosophically and spiritually rich Islamic poets, such as Rumi and Amir Khusraw. Though the course material is primarily philosophical and literary, it also engages material from history, politics and the arts.

Language & Expression (2 courses):

The development of linguistic and expressive abilities is widely recognized to be a key benefit of a liberal arts education. Communicative power is key to leadership and success across fields and disciplines. This is why eloquence in the broadest sense is one of the most highly valued benefits of a liberal arts education. The opening course in our Liberal Core is designed to develop the reading and presentation skills – written, oral, applicative and visual – that our students will need to excel at Habib University and beyond.

Course 1: CORE 101: Rhetoric & Communication

The command of language and the ability to communicate effectively in speech and writing is essential to leadership. This is why eloquence in the broadest sense is one of the most highly valued benefits of a liberal arts education. The opening course in our Liberal Core is designed to develop the reading and presentation skills – written, oral, applicative and visual – that our students will need to excel at Habib University and beyond.

Our curriculum nurtures our students’ rhetorical abilities throughout their college career, especially through the Liberal Core. Rhetoric & Communication is designed to first identify the different aspects of expression and eloquence as distinct and essential abilities, and to develop and improve them through application and practice. Cicero says in his classic text on rhetoric, De Oratore: “Since all the activity and ability of an orator falls into five divisions, he must first hit upon what to say; then manage and marshal his discoveries, not merely in orderly merely in orderly fashion, but with a discriminating eye for the exact weight as it were of each argument; next go on to array them in the adornments of style; after that keep them guarded in his memory; and in the end deliver them with effect and charm.”

The material, classroom experience, and exercises of Rhetoric & Communication are designed to cultivate all five of these critical abilities, together with sophisticated reading skills. Our students will learn to make their speech and writing a total rhetorical experience, allowing them to communicate as effectively as they can across a variety of media. Class content will focus on compelling and relevant texts broadly defined – essays, journalism, speeches, advertisements, websites, etc. – and chosen to elicit opinion and encourage discussion and debate. As they develop their powers of reading powerful texts, students will practice and improve communication skills through regular writing assignments, revision exercises, individual and group presentations, and the utilization of ‘alternative’ (non-traditional) communication media like websites and social media. Rhetoric & Communication will also feature the ethics of discourse and communication, so that tact and respect for the other become an essential part of students’ experience and understanding of rhetorical ability.

Course 2: URDU 102: Jehan-e-Urdu (The World of Urdu)

This course is designed to fulfill our commitment to the vernacular, as well as to reap the potential of modern Urdu literature and criticism to illuminate crucial aspects of our modernity. Jehan-e-Urdu is a pedagogically dynamic seminar that will rapidly advance students’ appreciation and knowledge of Urdu through engagement with powerful texts of prose and poetry selected to speak to the concerns of the student today, opening up Urdu as a living world of insight and thought.

Creative Practice (1 course):

Creativity is a way of thinking. Our graduates will have the freedom to explore their disciplines and others with a critical lens; they will be allowed to experiment and fail, and try yet again. It is through the rubric of creativity that success flourishes. Our students will innovate, and become problem solvers. All HU students are required to take at least one Elective course under this rubric.

Formal Reasoning (1 course):

Deductive thinking and reasoning is crucial across fields and disciplines in both science and engineering, as well as the social sciences and humanities. Students are taught to think logically, act logically, and ultimately do logically. Whether they are solving a math equation, or trying to understand a Macbeth soliloquy, they shall do so with reason. All students at HU are required to take a minimum of one course in Formal Reasoning.

Course 1: CS 110: Computational Thinking I

Computational Thinking I introduces students to the theoretical and practical aspects of some of the major ideas and breakthroughs in computer science. The course material emphasizes the nature of computer science as not just an exercise in mathematics and logic but a means to solve social problems that impact the daily lives of potentially millions of people across the globe. Complementary laboratory sessions develop skills in algorithm building that allow students to program a computer to implement and test their ideas.

Quantitative Reasoning (1 course):

Numbers and quantities are an essential part of modern civilization and its forms of knowledge. The ability to handle and operationalize large amounts of data, quantitative reasoning and analytical skills is a crucial life skill. We make all our students take at least one course in Quantitative Reasoning. HOW

Course 1: ENER 101/103: Energy

The quest for safe, secure, and sustainable energy poses one of the most critical challenges of our age. This will require sophisticated and well-informed social, economic and technological choices. This course aims to provide students with the tools needed to think intelligently about sustainability. They learn about several possible alternate energy sources including the scientific principles that govern their creation and application. The laboratory part of the course features hands-on experience with renewable energy devices including solar cells, windmills, hydrogen fuel cells, bio-fuel, bio-diesel, etc. Students are expected to create their own devices during the course, allowing them to connect theory to practice. The exposure to these experiments extends their fundamental knowledge of physics, chemistry and statistics. The course also expands on the topics of energy conservation, energy storage, energy transmission and energy policy.

Natural Scientic Method & Analysis (2 courses):

The development of scientific method and analysis is a crucial feature of modernity and its forms of knowledge, impacting not just the natural, but also the social sciences and humanities. The centrality of science and technology in the contemporary world is unparalleled in the history of human societies and cultures. Because of the obvious power of scientific thought to shape ideas it has been the foundation upon which notions of progress, modernity, and even freedom and liberty have been built since the end of the 18th century. To ensure the scientific literacy of all our graduates, all HU students will be required to take a minimum of two courses in Natural Scientific Method & Analysis.

Course 1: SCI 200: Scientific Method

How do we make decisions? How do we evaluate information? Should we trust all information? How do we recognize the limitations of a claim? These matters are not only for practicing scientists but form an important part of our daily lives. At a time when information is more easily accessible than ever before, how do we intelligently utilize available information in making choices? This course builds on the foundations of scientific methods of inquiry and works to apply them to our everyday lives. Utilizing a wide array of examples, it illustrates scientific methods and their applications.

Course 2: CORE 302:

Science, Technology & Society Science, Technology & Society is a critical interdisciplinary course which challenges advanced students with the central assertion that, in the words of contemporary philosopher of science Sergio Sismondo, “science and technology are thoroughly social activities.” The course will draw upon Science and Technology Studies (STS) to demonstrate that the production and practice of scientific knowledge and technological development is a social and an historical process in which both scientists and citizens play a key role. Students examine the ways in which scientific communities create and regulate methods, establish consensus, and uphold or challenge theoretical models and technological advancements. In addition, they critically analyze the social impact and meaning of scientific breakthroughs and technological advances in historical and contemporary contexts.



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