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How I Learned to Stop Worrying about STEM and Love Liberal Arts and AXLE


Posted by Nancy Liu on Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Freshmen moving through the motions of the annual Commons Orientation ceremonies may notice that many of their peers have chosen to pursue some STEM major, perhaps even under a pre-med track.  At many universities across the country, especially those specifically catered to STEM fields, students are capable of focusing their entire undergraduate curriculum on these STEM subjects. They can go four years taking a minimal number of humanities courses. Here at Vanderbilt, this is not the case. These students will soon embark on the adventure of a rich and diverse liberal arts education.

Although Vanderbilt University is renowned for its stellar biology and engineering departments, attracting aspiring future scientists and doctors from across the world, the school also requires all students to participate in some kind of liberal arts core. In the College of Arts and Sciences, the largest college on campus, this takes place through the AXLE program (Achieving Excellence in Liberal Education), which outlines 7 different fields of academic study including international studies, humanities and the creative arts, and social and behavioral science.

There are many who would argue that such a system is unnecessary, especially for STEM students who would benefit more from a focused education to prepare them for rigorous careers. I agreed upon arriving at Vanderbilt as an MHS, pre-health student, but after a year of study at Vanderbilt, my perspective on AXLE has changed completely.


In the midst of a world with a charged and polarized political atmosphere, increasingly complex global-issues with no clear good guy or bad guy, and a job market that favors well-rounded and worldly applicants, we’re in need of well-educated and well-informed adults that are capable of forming substantive and respectful opinions. Now, STEM courses do an excellent job of providing students with the skills necessary to face some of the most difficult and essential problems in our world – combatting disease, advancing technology, building cities and much more. But they are often less successful at exposing students to rich cultures from around the world, at confronting morally complex and provocative topics both through history and in our modern world, and at exploring not what makes our individual bodies tick, but rather the successes and struggles that we have experienced to make us who we are as one people.

The classes and professors here at Vanderbilt’s various humanities departments are nothing short of excellent. They can teach you music, art, history, language, philosophy, and so much more. They can teach you how to think with an open mind, to write with rationale and eloquence, to better understand the person sitting right next to you. They will help you grow into a graduate who is ready to join this crazy and unexpected world we live in, prepared for any challenge you may face in your life.


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