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Humanities for the 21st Century

As the Information Age continues to press forward, the presence of scholars to consider and forecast the ways in which pioneering technological advances and innovations do and will function in relation to people and society is increasingly important — and building bridges between the two cultures to unite the liberal arts with the technological disciplines is imperative for mutual progress on both fronts.

That bridge-building process starts for every student — whether an engineer, a scientist, an economist, a game designer, or a mathematician — in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, which helps provide a cultural grounding for all graduates.

As it did in the 1950s, the school continues to provide required courses to all undergraduates at Rensselaer. Referred to as the “Humanities Core,” the requisite consists of 24 credit hours or six courses.

The goal of teaching the humanities and social sciences to future engineers, scientists, mathematicians, architects, and business leaders, according to Harrington, isn’t to convert them to literature majors or history buffs.

It’s to instill in them a “cultural sophistication” that exposes them to different cultural norms, ideas, and influences, as well as questions about what technology means in the human and societal context.

“We want all students to leave Rensselaer with fundamentals in subjects like history, science, the arts, and cognition so that they are fully prepared to enter the workforce in a global economy that requires intellectual versatility, flexibility, and the ability to approach problems in new ways and interact with others from multiple points of view,” says Harrington.

Students from the other four schools on campus appreciate the educational opportunities H&SS affords, says Winner, remarking on changes he has noticed over the years.

“Today the school’s faculty is far more demanding and most students not only appreciate the significance of their studies in H&SS, but insist upon the very best knowledge we have to offer, precisely because they plan to put that knowledge to work in their careers,” Winner says.

Gajarsa agrees.

“Today, more than ever, the importance of a grounding in the liberal arts is apparent,” says Gajarsa who, in addition to being a Rensselaer trustee has served as a member of the school’s advisory board. “The global workforce demands that we develop the total person in each of our graduates. It’s not enough for students to just have great ideas; they need to be able to present them, communicate them, and educate others about them.”

Harrington expects the school to become another kind of bridge builder — one that will facilitate student involvement in the Institute’s forthcoming Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC).

“I see the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences as the interface between the academic curriculum and EMPAC,” he says. “Because all students pass through our hallways and classrooms, we’ll be particularly dedicated to developing courses that will involve aspects of EMPAC.”

Since the award of its first academic degrees 50 years ago, H&SS has been on a transformational path moving toward its current prominence both nationally and internationally. It continues on that path today, evolving into a more dynamic school with ever more dynamic faculty members, academic programs, and degree offerings at the synthesis of science, technology, and the humanities.

“This is the humanities for the 21st century. It’s about moving away from the old way of doing things and being fully engaged with what’s new — that’s what sustains the humanities,” says Harrington. “And I’m certain that Stephen Van Rensselaer and Amos Eaton would be delighted with what we are doing because it follows their original mission on access to technological culture.”

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.