Everybody loves an underdog. A recent column by Serrena Iyer ’12, “Easily gutted education” (Sept. 18), spoke on behalf of the underdog of all underdogs: the oft-neglected, ever-underappreciated, “who-am-I-and-why-am-I-here” science major at Yale.
Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School wasn’t founded until 1847, and it remained segregated from the rest of Yale College until World War I, leaving today’s scientifically inclined Eli with a fairly weighty chip on his shoulder.
This situation is hardly fair: Today Yale’s science departments are characterized by amazing resources, cutting-edge research and brilliant students. That the Yale name is not yet associated with meaningful study in the natural sciences is a holdover of the past and not the fault of the current science departments, much less the students they attract.
To suggest, however, as Iyer did, that due to the presence of “gut” science classes, science majors at Yale graduate with more complete educations than their classmates in the humanities is grossly incorrect. Iyer claims that the student who majors in a subject in the humanities at Yale comes here with the sole aspiration of taking the best classes that Yale has to offer in its cherished humanities programs, while the science major arrives ready to be inundated with humanities regardless.
My experience refutes this depiction. I was a huge math and science nerd in high school: English involved writing fluffy papers; history was mere memorization of stories, names and dates forgotten soon after the exam. Math and science, on the other hand, were challenges worth taking up. Together they seemed to reveal the fabric of our universe. Faking one’s way out of a test question or basing labs on one’s “feelings” was unthinkable. Called by the elegance and truth of science and math, I had awards coming out of my tympanic membranes. One semester senior year, I even chose to take three college-level math classes.
I came to Yale knowing only that I wanted to take Math 230: “Vector Calculus and Linear Algebra,” a rigorous proof-based class for the would-be math major. Then Directed Studies happened.
My experience with the Great Conversation was life-changing in a way I don’t expect to happen again. This is a common story among students entering liberal arts universities. The once scientifically inclined, upon encountering the humanities in a form as rigorous and “objective” as the natural sciences can hope to be, entranced by the eternal questions about free will and obligation, freedom and authority, God and man — find that problem sets simply cannot hold their attention.
Most science majors, like most Americans and even most Yalies, assume a view of academia that comes ultimately from Weber: The modern world is once more polytheistic, no longer united under the umbrella of political life, as in Ancient Greece, or the Christian conception of God, as in much of European history, leaving the competing gods of science, history and religion to rule in their irreconcilable spheres. Only certain “big children” in universities still pretend science can ever reconcile these gods or tell us what we ultimately want to know: how to live. We have tacitly given up on what appears to be the lie of the liberal arts education, knowing full well that Aristotle (Leibniz? da Vinci? In any case, someone long-gone) was the last man to know everything that there was to be known in his day. Today we must decide which god or demon calls to us, and worship blindly, perhaps sampling other disciplines along the way. Objectively speaking, quia absurdum can no more be proven to be noble or “correct” than quia inutile or the banner of progress. Thus neither the natural sciences nor the humanities (I leave aside the social sciences as altogether too depressing) even attempt, much less succeed at, a justification of their worth.
It seems to me that if there is a last bastion of hope for the question of how to live and what it all means, it will be found in the humanities. If you think science is clearly worth studying because it describes the real world, you may not have thought enough about what “worth” means or what science does: abstract a scientific character from reality and describe that, not reality. If you think the humanities are “subjective” and easy for every Yale student, you may have been taking the wrong humanities courses. In writing that science majors at Yale cannot “avoid learning true humanities,” Iyer reveals a misunderstanding of what “true humanities” are and should be.
To understand true humanities means not only to be able to identify rhetorical devices or write clear thesis sentences, but to see and appreciate why so many men throughout the centuries have spent so much time and thought examining the classics, themselves and “the human condition.” The humanities encompass the whole of their history in a way the sciences cannot and should not. While science is a method driven by progress, unable to look backwards to the past or inward for self-justification, the humanities must be more than a method and a collection of facts. Science majors are no more likely to graduate Yale understanding this than humanities majors are likely to graduate willing and able to employ the experimental method.
I may be accused of idealism, pomposity and, worse, conservatism if I quote Allan Bloom on the tendency of the most gifted university students to leave the sciences in favor of those disciplines that concern themselves with the eternal questions. In any case, I’m not here to accuse science majors of choosing the wrong god, because all disciplines have their place and perhaps many of those in science examine their first principles outside of their major. Besides, plenty of those in the humanities have given up on the larger search for truth through education as well.
If science has less pull for some, this is neither due to an imbalance of rigor nor a lack of “incentives,” and if the liberal arts education is failing, this is not due to the presence of gut classes. If each student graduated Yale having taken “real” classes that stretched his talent in each skill and distributional group, this would have little bearing on the quality of his liberal arts education. Modern man does not have the capacity to devote himself to learning everything, so he must choose his demon and choose it carefully. But please forgive those of us whose demon at least makes pretensions to being first before all others.
Katie Carmody is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.