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The Well-Rounded Technologist

Humanities and Arts at WPI

By Eileen McCluskey
Photography by Patrick O’Connor

“The humanities teach ways to analyze what’s coming at us. They teach us how to read between the lines.”
—Patrick Quinn

When people think of WPI, they see a university offering some of the nation’s best programs in cutting-edge engineering, science, and technological disciplines.

Less known, however, is that WPI also provides challenging and enlivening humanities courses, with a faculty that seeks to inspire in students a love of theatre, history, music, literature, philosophy, and other arts and humanities concentrations.

“WPI isn’t about just churning out people who can crunch numbers, but developing people who can be creative within the bounds of their disciplines,” says Sergio Salvatore ’02 CS, lead architect of mobile technology for Sony BMG Music Entertainment.

Now, the Humanities and Arts (HUA) Department, working with the full university faculty, is examining the possibility of expanding HUA staff, course offerings, and visibility on and off campus.

New growth potential

WPI President Dennis Berkey supports the cultivation of a curriculum rich in the humanities. “We’re producing leaders, not just engineers and scientists,” he says. “We’re developing students who are thoughtful and well-informed about the ways in which the world works, who think deeply and seriously about issues related to the humanities and the arts as well as about technical, engineering, and science-related issues.”

In fact, the university is looking at how the humanities and arts might be more fully integrated into WPI, through one of seven commissions formed last year at Berkey’s request.

“The changes we’ll make are not yet fully decided,” says HUA department head Patrick Quinn. “But the process is progressing well.”

Quinn sees many benefits to WPI in enlarging the role played at the university by the humanities. For starters, he thinks WPI could build a larger student body by expanding its HUA programs. “We’ve got this tremendous infrastructure. We could use it to bring more students to WPI,” he says. “We know we need to grow the university’s enrollment, and the humanities has plenty of room to do this by creating courses that build on our strengths.”

One new program that seems to be attracting more students already is the four-year undergraduate major in interactive media and game development. Launched this fall, IMGD requires students to draw upon the humanities and arts through courses in storytelling and the social and ethical dimensions of interactive media. Quinn thinks the course could spawn other entertainment science courses, such as those in cinema production and interactive new media.

To be sure, existing courses and programs take advantage of both the humanities and the sciences and technology. (See page 29 for more on music professor Frederick Bianchi’s virtual orchestra; see page 9 for more on the new Little Theatre at WPI).

“We’re already moving on our strengths in technical writing, theatre, music, and American and European studies,” says Quinn. “We can do more to meld the social sciences and humanities. I think implementing broader programs would be great because students would leave here with this tremendous breadth of exposure across the sciences and humanities.”

To study Shakespeare and Newton

"WPI isn't just about churning out people who can crunch numbers, but developing people who can be creative within the bounds of their disciplines."
—Servio Salvatore ’02

By continuing to support the humanities curriculum, and by further integrating HUA programs with WPI’s signature technical and scientific degrees, Quinn hopes a new way of envisioning education will arise at WPI.

“Traditional liberal arts degrees are passé,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be great, and make sense, to offer a degree program in what a person needs to know to be a full citizen of the world? To study not just Shakespeare, but also to understand the practical implications of Newton’s laws, to know how elasticity works, and how it is that computers can translate electrical signals into the entire collection of the Library of Congress. This kind of technical literacy is knowable, and we should all be educated in it.”

The same, says Quinn, goes for those whose proclivities inspire them to become engineers, scientists, and technicians. “What can the poets of World War I teach us about the experience of being a soldier in a war?” he asks, citing Siegfried Sassoon, who fought in that war and about whom Quinn has long studied and written. “Sassoon wrote poems about how war affects the soldier. If you’re building war machines, isn’t it important to think about the effects of the machines on the people who use them, and on whom they’re used? This is right in front of us. All we have to do is read, think, and discuss. Wouldn’t a degree that covers all of this be astounding?”

Such a bold, fresh vision for higher education is by no means being examined only at WPI. In fact, Quinn recently participated in a three-day conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation, at which two humanists and one social scientist discussed the future of liberal arts education with 15 scientists and the same number of engineers.

“It was fascinating. We asked ourselves and each other, ‘Why are the students at our great universities unaware of the problems in the world?’ These students have technical literacy but very little knowledge of the humanities,” says Quinn. “And we talked about how technologists are getting way ahead of themselves.”

He described how the scientists and humanists gathered at the conference agreed there is danger afoot “if scientists don’t have sufficient grounding in the humanities—that, for instance, people are at the mercy of propaganda if we don’t understand that’s what it is. The news, the written word, the arts, can easily be used to manipulate the masses if we aren’t grounded in the critical thinking skills the humanities offer. The humanities teach ways to analyze what’s coming at us. They teach us how to read between the lines.”

Carol Simpson, provost and senior vice president of WPI, notes, “There’s no doubt that humanities offerings broaden the students’ educational base so that they acquire a better understanding of the societal impact of their technical work, as well as critical thinking skills and the ability to express themselves well.”

While discussions continue on how WPI may change and expand its humanities and arts offerings—with decisions expected in 2006—Quinn feels his department is raring to go. “We’re blessed with a faculty that’s been very supportive of the changes that have already taken place, such as adding the interactive media major,” he says.

“As we market ourselves as a comprehensive university,” he continues, “we’ll attract more students who, like Ms. Servatius [Irma (Roberts) Servatius ’04, see next page], may start in technology but then see the humanities offerings and want both. As this continues, we’ll develop a more diverse student body, kids with an interest in history, music, theater, and writing.”

As he considers the possible outcomes of the strategy and review process under way at WPI, Quinn believes that faculty across departments will forge a strong future for the humanities and the arts. “The people here tend to be open to the importance of giving our students every opportunity to explore the humanities,” he says. “As a community, we understand the critical need to cultivate cultural and historical awareness. This is what a university is for: to keep open the free exchange of ideas. I think we’re at the beginning of an exciting new era here at WPI.”

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Last modified: Dec 21, 2005, 11:25 EST
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