Yale’s science divide is artificial construct

It’s tough for a social science major like me to understand obscure mathematical technical terms, but apparently there is a “division” between the humanities and the sciences at Yale.

If there’s anything that huffing and puffing from Sloane Physics Laboratory to the Old Art Gallery in a 10-minute interval for a semester taught me, it was to appreciate the value of bringing the varied disciplines of Yale College closer together. It’s time to combat the perception that students specializing in, say, engineering and English are engaged in fundamentally different educational projects at Yale.

Part of the problem is the wide divergence in people’s high-school backgrounds. It often seems that by the time freshmen arrive at Yale, the Sorting Hat has already put in its two cents. And naturally, that shiny SAT scoring machine that gave you a hundred more points in critical reading than in math, or the 11th-grade guidance counselor who happened to tell you to work in a lab, has already judged your character. So we witness the phenomenon of the student who sailed through math in high school having the freshman-fall epiphany: “I’m just not really a QR person.” And we snigger over the emergence of “humanities guts,” classes that reinforce the stereotype of arts courses as wishy-washy and unstructured.

Most pernicious of all, we encounter the feeling that freshmen are set on their course — like U1301 brown dwarf stars, say, spun into being by the Great Clockmaker — so that by the time sophomore year begins, it becomes easier and easier to put people under category headings that encapsulate much more than academics. The innocuous term “premed,” for some, conjures up an image of an overeager student taking a two-hour break from shadowing at the hospital to memorize chemical structures by rote and e-mail the professor about getting back two points on an exam. Meantime, a poli sci major speaks in sound bites and relies on badly done statistics to reach such astonishing conclusions as “if more people vote, voter turnout will be higher.” More important than the usual stereotypes about each major, however, is the stratification that seems to arise between two types of students: Those who have the capacity to conduct rigorous quantitative analysis, and those who prefer to seek out the transcendental meaning of life in more qualitative ways. But nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s no coincidence that figures as varied as Descartes, Leibniz and Turing are known for their significant contributions to the sciences as well as the humanities. While the level of technological knowledge required to participate meaningfully in each discipline has made it more difficult for people to become “Renaissance Yalies,” science and the humanities can inform each other. A discussion of Descartes’ philosophy of mind is thoroughly enriched when some basic principles of neuroscience are introduced. But neither should scientific observation be able to stand as the arbiter of all human experience. The purpose of the humanities, in a way, is to take what science has given humankind and to ask, what can we do with this? What ought we to do with this? We must, however, possess at least a basic understanding of science before we claim the right to stand above it. On the flip side, scientific discovery provides us with the responsibility to connect empirical and logical principles to our daily experience and to our political and philosophical beliefs. These connections can be made through the study of literature, history, languages and much more.

Such principles are not new; they are the foundation of Yale’s liberal arts education. But as distributional requirements begin to be seen as a burden rather than an opportunity, students, departments and the Yale administration can work together to ensure that they are upheld. Many Yale science departments, such as astronomy, electrical engineering and mathematics, have made a conscious effort to appeal to non-science majors, and their efforts should be applauded and supported. Yale’s creation of majors like “Physics and Philosophy” and “Computer Science and Psychology” represents a very positive step forward. The carrot, however, still needs to be nibbled, and in the final analysis students majoring in any subject must take the initiative to learn something they might initially find difficult. By taking the same classes and learning from one another, students from both sides of the divide stand to benefit immensely.

This is the last time in our lives that we will be able to experiment with the letters or numbers that make us smile only to ourselves in the library — and wonder whether we just might have found another passion. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity.

Rachel Bayefsky is a sophomore in Morse College.

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