MAGDZIK: A specious case for science

As my sixth shopping period experience winds to a close, I want to give some attention to perhaps one of the most despised components of the Yale undergraduate experience: the mandatory science credits.

In theory, the two required science credits serve to ensure “diverse intellectual pursuits for all Yale College students while encouraging flexibility and freedom to expand on individual interests, explore new curiosities, and take academic risks.” Hogwash. In practice, the science credits as they work now fail on all these counts and do active harm to the academic mission of Yale College.

For dedicated science students, the science requirement is meaningless. To non-science majors, however, they constitute a severe burden. There are huge drawbacks to the option of taking legitimate science courses like organic chemistry or molecular biology. First, they tend to be very harshly curved, carrying the potential for devastating a semester GPA. This is doubly true insofar as one has to compete with much more dedicated students who are certainly not there to casually explore new curiosities but rather to continue their inexorable march to medical school and aren’t going to let 800 pages of rote memorization stop them. To get a decent grade, a humanities student would have to structure his schedule around such a course — hardly a desirable outcome. Second, it’s bound to be harder work insofar as the humanities student in question is not used to doing science work.

What are the alternatives? Large lecture classes taught essentially at high school levels, or seminars of the same stripe. Everyone knows about them, and everyone goes to them when in need of science credits. The work is rarely, if ever, intellectually stimulating for the student, and, perhaps worse, these courses are a waste of time for the unlucky professors stuck teaching them.

Instead of spending more time on their truly interested and more advanced students or on personal research, they need to engage with students who refuse to answer even the most basic questions when the teacher tries to have some interaction in lecture. No doubt the astronomy professors have cursed the requirement more than once during their respective stays at Yale.

But worse, the science credit often gets in the way of classes the student would find more interesting and derive more intellectual stimulation from. There’s such a wealth of offerings at Yale that every little spot in someone’s four-year schedule is a highly coveted prize. If we eliminated the science requirement, perhaps the security-track global affairs major would take a course on education policy and decide he wanted to become a school administrator instead of secretary of defense.

The opportunity to experiment should not be confined to the strict boundaries of the Yale administration’s vision. Instead, the administration should trust students to take those different classes themselves.

For those who find the suggestion of doing away with the science distributional requirement altogether unpalatable, I have another proposal.

The Yale website suggests that “close study of a science develops critical faculties that educated citizens need,” including an ability to evaluate expert opinion, distinguish demagoguery from science and develop new modes of thought via theoretical inquiry and experimental analysis.

If Yale College is interested in producing educated citizens, then instead of the hodgepodge of random lectures on topics that will never pertain to most humanities majors’ careers and lives (and let’s not kid ourselves — “Galaxies and the Universe” is not going to inspire confidence from major engineering or biotech companies), Yale should reduce the required science credits to one, get rid of the usual courses for non-science majors and create SCIE100 — “Public Science.”

The course could be a general overview of a bunch of aspects of science about which active citizens need to be informed. A survey of the technologies and processes behind genetically modified foods, global warming, clean energy and fossil fuel production, DNA as applied to criminal cases and paternity tests, and many more everyday topics would be far more beneficial than many of the current offerings.

By comparison, the quantitative reasoning distributional requirement leads humanities majors to learn important skills like basic microeconomics, statistics and programming. The classes currently offered in that field fulfill their stated mission. But, by and large, the current classes non-science majors take fail the task they were created to carry out. They deserve reconsideration – and perhaps, ultimately, the axe.

Michael Magdzik is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at michael.magdzik@yale.edu.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Curving” grades?

    You mean “fabrication” in the service of symmetry.

  • YoDoc

    These same arguments hold, in converse, amongst Engineering majors (cursing the need to “expand” their intellects with Compositions courses), Computer Science majors (uttering epithets against Foreign language intimacies) and, of course, the grubbing pre-med majors (who groan against the need to read 15 current American novelists’ works for 3 credits). Examples for these requirements abound: I could point to the current director of a West Coast cancer center who, 35 years ago, danced through these halls while pursuing an English lit degree (Phi Beta Kappa) and when on to honors studies in medicine and further training at the Crimson center farther north. I submit that with the vast accumulated insight of 2 1/2 years advanced education, the author might open his vistas a bit, cease wailing and, after becoming a bit more learned, help devise the ultimate Science course that would meet his Utopian ideal.

  • scienceprof

    The author of the article might want to check out MCDB/MB&B 105a or b, An Issues Approach to Biology, or MB&B 110a or b, Current Issues in Biological Science. These courses closely approximate many aspects of the “Public Science” course he suggests, and the design of these courses by the faculty was motivated by sentiments similar to those the author expressed. The Yale science faculty do want to engage the non-science majors in a manner that will appeal to them, and we also admit that our attempts at this may not always succeed. We do need the students to meet us half way by being open to engaging with science.

  • chorleywood

    Or indeed APHY 110a “The Technological World”, or in a different vein: PHYS 101 “Movie Physics”, PHYS 115 “Physics of Dance” or PHYS 118 “Physics of Music”.

  • joematcha

    The science professors at Yale do actually go out of their way to create meaningful classes with interesting curricula to bring in non-science majors as both scienceprof and chorleywood relate. The one thing I wish Yale would do is allow freshmen and maybe sophomores to take one proper science class (in the vein of MCDB 120, PHYS 150 or 180, Chem 115, etc) credit/d/fail and still have it fulfill the distribution requirement. That way people really can test their interests in science in a way that might enable them to see majoring in a science, which sadly I don’t imagine any of the classes scienceprof and chorleywood bring up can do (which is fine; that’s not the point of those classes anyway).

    • River_Tam

      No one will ever fall in love with a course if they take it CDF, because they simply won’t put in the requisite work to make the course rewarding.

      • penny_lane

        Don’t say no one. I once took a course C/D/F so I could skip the final. You gotta put work in during the semester if you want to do that.

        • River_Tam

          I’ve heard of professors failing CDF kids who skip the final (or a final assignment).

          • penny_lane

            Theoretically, the prof shouldn’t know who’s C/D/F and who’s not…though I suppose I was lucky if that’s the case.

    • yalengineer

      I’ve taken a good number of my humanities classes C/D/F and I probably wouldn’t have if I didn’t have that option. At the end of the day, they were worth it since I was able to get a lot out of the classes but I didn’t have to worry about the fact that I have a C-level writing ability.

      • penny_lane

        This is what frustrates me about you STEM types. You’re okay with a C-level writing ability, but my B-level calculus ability makes me an embarrassment to Yale? Come on.

        • GeoJoe

          I think getting a B in anything is an embarrassment to Yale. We’re not here to make friends; we’re here to win. JK LOL.

  • SY10

    I was a humanities major (history). My two favorite classes at Yale were two classes I took to meet the science requirement (Ornithology and Galaxies and Cosmology – both 200-level courses that counted for majors in their respective departments). I wasn’t overwhelmed by the difficulty of these classes, though they were serious, and the material was fascinating. The problem many humanities majors have isn’t that they are required to take science classes, it’s that the manner in which they choose science classes is entirely based around doing the minimum work possible to get a credit, without lowering their GPAs. If instead people tried to find classes that they thought sounded interesting, they might find that Yale’s science departments have a wide range of fascinating courses, many (though, it’s true, by no means all) of which are open to students with no more science and math background than most Yalies probably had in high school (AP courses or the equivalent in calculus, physics, biology, and chemistry). Seek those classes out and take them – your Yale experience will be better for it.

  • ML

    This is exactly why Yale makes Science classes mandatory. If they were not, lazy, grades-obsessed people like michael magdzik would not broaden their horizons a bit. This excerpt ”To non-science majors, however, they constitute a severe burden. There are huge drawbacks to the option of taking legitimate science courses like organic chemistry or molecular biology. First, they tend to be very harshly curved, carrying the potential for devastating a semester GPA. This is doubly true insofar as one has to compete with much more dedicated students who are certainly not there to casually explore new curiosities but rather to continue their inexorable march to medical school and aren’t going to let 800 pages of rote memorization stop them. To get a decent grade, a humanities student would have to structure his schedule around such a course — hardly a desirable outcome. Second, it’s bound to be harder work insofar as the humanities student in question is not used to doing science work” is particularly disgusting coming from a Yale student. The University should force students to take REAL science classes such as orgo, university level physics, or quantum mechanics instead of dumb ” science courses for non science majors” . Otherwise, they should also propose ” humanities classes for non humanities majors” such as ” English 001 : Basic Alphabet” or ”English 002 : learning writing for people with no writing experience”

    • whatwhat

      this.

    • penny_lane

      >Otherwise, they should also propose ” humanities classes for non humanities majors” such as ” English 001 : Basic Alphabet” or ”English 002 : learning writing for people with no writing experience”

      These exist. See any English course below 120.

    • Robbie

      I would be ALL OVER Basic Alphabet.

  • whatwhat

    “To non-science majors, however, they constitute a severe burden. There are huge drawbacks to the option of taking legitimate science courses like organic chemistry or molecular biology. First, they tend to be very harshly curved, carrying the potential for devastating a semester GPA. This is doubly true insofar as one has to compete with much more dedicated students who are certainly not there to casually explore new curiosities but rather to continue their inexorable march to medical school and aren’t going to let 800 pages of rote memorization stop them. To get a decent grade, a humanities student would have to structure his schedule around such a course — hardly a desirable outcome. ”

    Stereotyping is no good. Also, the author seems to be worrying as much about his GPA as these premeds who are on this “inexorable march to medical school.” If the author cares so much about his grades, he should suck it up and try harder. If the author thinks taking, say, 4 non-science courses+1 science course is tough, what does this say about students who have to “structure his schedule” around 3 or 4 science courses + 1 or 2 non-science course (i.e. many science majors)? Should professors give science majors an easier time and in humanities courses just because of their course load? Should we have lower standards for humanities students? Of course not.

    “Second, it’s bound to be harder work insofar as the humanities student in question is not used to doing science work.To get a decent grade, a humanities student would have to structure his schedule around such a course — hardly a desirable outcome. Second, it’s bound to be harder work insofar as the humanities student in question is not used to doing science work.”

    This is not true. All Yale students are eligible to take intro science classes (Chem114, MCDB120, Phys150- or what used to be Phys150). Moreover, most people who matriculate at Yale have taken AP/IB (or equivalent) classes, including those in physics, biology, chemistry, and calculus (as SY10 mentioned). It’s not bound to be harder work- regardless of whether you’re potential science major or a potential humanities major, you most likely have had about the same amount of experience doing “science work” in high school as the students in introductory science courses. In any case, introductory science classes do not require any prior knowledge in their respective subjects. That is why they are introductory courses.

  • River_Tam

    > To non-science majors, however, they constitute a severe burden. There are huge drawbacks to the option of taking legitimate science courses like organic chemistry or molecular biology. First, they tend to be very harshly curved, carrying the potential for devastating a semester GPA. This is doubly true insofar as one has to compete with much more dedicated students who are certainly not there to casually explore new curiosities but rather to continue their inexorable march to medical school and aren’t going to let 800 pages of rote memorization stop them. Second, it’s bound to be harder work insofar as the humanities student in question is not used to doing science work.

    Somebody call the wahhhhhhmbulance and a proctologist for a major case of butthurt. You thinking that molecular biology is “800 pages of rote memorization” is exactly why you need to take a real science class. Your inability to articulate what exactly constitutes “science work” is another reason why you have to sack up and take the classes.

    Truth bomb: You know how a lot of Polisci majors complain endlessly about “lax bros” and “rowers” being too stupid to be at Yale? That’s how a lot of STEM majors feel about Polisci majors.

  • yalengineer

    To get a decent grade, a humanities student would have to structure his schedule around such a course — hardly a desirable outcome. Second, it’s bound to be harder work insofar as the humanities student in question is not used to doing science work.

    Its not as if I didn’t have to structure my engineering schedule around a humanities course. For multiple quarters, I had to balance my 4 engineering (as in non-econ) problem sets with the occasional paper. When you get in the regiment of setting aside 6-8 hours for each problem set each night and it all gets disrupted by this random paper, you’ll be upset too. Oh wait, 70% doesn’t curve up to an A… As a science student not used to doing humanities work, maybe I should just suck it up… oh wait I did.

    • yalengineer

      River, how do you do block quotes? I’ve been using html tags but it doesn’t look like yours.

      • River_Tam

        > Quoted Text

    • River_Tam

      I remember a time when I heard a kid in my econ class complaining that he needed to get a 90% to get an A. I laughed.

  • ldffly

    I was about to write a response to this article but ML expressed my opposition to the article exactly.

    One personal note. I was a philosophy major. I took two years of calculus, one course in linear algebra, and one intro course in differential equations. My science classes consisted of calculus level intro physics and the astronomy class from back in the 70s. I wasn’t atypical of philosophy students in those days. I didn’t get perfect grades, but that didn’t keep me out of graduate school. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have taken the gut science courses. Garbage (yes, I said garbage and mean it) like Physics of Dance didn’t exist.

    • Jerry

      As a physics major, I sympathize with your sentiment, but there’s absolutely no need to demean classes that you know nothing about. Physics of Dance, along with many other courses that you would likely deride as “garbage,” are really terrific courses taught by downright amazing professors who deserve nothing but respect for their efforts.

  • penny_lane

    Any good humanities major knows that the greatest humanities scholars and artists in human history had very strong backgrounds in the sciences (Leonardo being the most well-known example; take a good look at Cormac McCarthy if you want someone more recent.) Science and humanities are both deeply important; the one without the other is meaningless. Anyone who doesn’t believe this doesn’t belong at a liberal arts institution.

    In fact, I would advocate that the science professors someone mentioned, who put together engaging courses for non-science majors, should direct their energies towards making the general, prerequisite science courses (gen chem, orgo, bio, what-have-you) engaging enough that anyone with a decent brain in his skull can get something out of them, even if it’s not a major pursuit. One would truly hope that a humanities major at Yale could keep up with the science folks if he truly wanted to.

    In short, I second the conclusions of commenters above that the author of this article is just lazy. As a humanities major, I disown him. He is an embarrassment.

    • River_Tam

      Yeah, but the author isn’t a humanities major. He’s a polisci major.

      • penny_lane

        Hmm. Well, maybe he just doesn’t like science because it reminds him that none of his work is actually falsifiable.

    • ldffly

      It’s too bad you didn’t go farther with your first claim. Many of the great early modern scientists and mathematicians (and many of the great 19th and 20th century mathematicians) were engaged in philosophical work. The scientific/mathematical ideas came out of the philosophical work. Descartes is one example. Of course, his physics went wrong with the exception that he was first to conceive of force as a vector quantity.

  • JohnnyE

    I’m sure you put more time into writing this article than you would have had to for an entire semester in one of those classes about stars. Nut up, son. You’ll have to do plenty of things you don’t want to do in life.

  • 13

    In this column, a whining Poli-Sci major blames his GPA on the one science course he’s taken and can’t find another one that sounds like a gut to fit his schedule.

    Am I wrong in thinking that the Sc-for-non-science-majors courses are often supposed to be fairly interesting? I’ve not taken any of them…

  • Jerry

    As my sixth shopping period experience winds to a close, I want to give some attention to perhaps one of the most despised components of the Yale undergraduate experience: the mandatory humanities credits.
    In theory, the two required humanities credits serve to ensure “diverse intellectual pursuits for all Yale College students while encouraging flexibility and freedom to expand on individual interests, explore new curiosities, and take academic risks.” Hogwash. In practice, the humanities credits as they work now fail on all these counts and do active harm to the academic mission of Yale College.
    For dedicated humanities students, the humanities requirement is meaningless. To non-humanities majors, however, they constitute a severe burden. There are huge drawbacks to the option of taking legitimate humanities courses like political philosophy or Roman history. First, they tend to be very harshly curved, carrying the potential for devastating a semester GPA. This is doubly true insofar as one has to compete with much more dedicated students who are certainly not there to casually explore new curiosities but rather to continue their inexorable march to law school and aren’t going to let 800 pages of rote memorization stop them. To get a decent grade, a science student would have to structure his schedule around such a course — hardly a desirable outcome. Second, it’s bound to be harder work insofar as the science student in question is not used to doing humanities work.
    What are the alternatives? Large lecture classes taught essentially at high school levels, or seminars of the same stripe. Everyone knows about them, and everyone goes to them when in need of humanities credits. The work is rarely, if ever, intellectually stimulating for the student, and, perhaps worse, these courses are a waste of time for the unlucky professors stuck teaching them.
    Instead of spending more time on their truly interested and more advanced students or on personal research, they need to engage with students who refuse to answer even the most basic questions when the teacher tries to have some interaction in lecture. No doubt the political science professors have cursed the requirement more than once during their respective stays at Yale.

  • Jerry

    But worse, the humanities credit often gets in the way of classes the student would find more interesting and derive more intellectual stimulation from. There’s such a wealth of offerings at Yale that every little spot in someone’s four-year schedule is a highly coveted prize. If we eliminated the humanities requirement, perhaps the particles-focused physics major would take a course on fluid dynamics and decide she wanted to become a condensed matter physicist instead of a particle physicist.
    The opportunity to experiment should not be confined to the strict boundaries of the Yale administration’s vision. Instead, the administration should trust students to take those different classes themselves.
    For those who find the suggestion of doing away with the humanities distributional requirement altogether unpalatable, I have another proposal.

    If Yale College is interested in producing educated citizens, then instead of the hodgepodge of random lectures on topics that will never pertain to most science majors’ careers and lives (and let’s not kid ourselves — “Dilemmas of the Nuclear Age” is not going to inspire confidence from major law firms or consulting companies), Yale should reduce the required humanities credits to one, get rid of the usual courses for non-humanities majors and create HUMS100 — “Public Humanities.”

    The course could be a general overview of a bunch of aspects of humanities about which active citizens need to be informed, like how to read, and how a bill becomes law.

    By comparison, the writing distributional requirement leads science majors to learn important skills like science writing and business writing. The classes currently offered in that field fulfill their stated mission. But, by and large, the current classes non-humanities majors take fail the task they were created to carry out. They deserve reconsideration – and perhaps, ultimately, the axe.

    Sheesh, these rebuttals practically write themselves.

    • yalengineer

      Bravo

    • anon12

      lol.

    • River_Tam

      I like you.

  • silliwin01

    Dilemmas of the Nuclear Age was a deeply engaging intellectual experience about a problem pertinent to every human being on our beautiful planet. Anyone concluding otherwise would be horribly mistaken, in that sad, pathetic self-delusional sort of way.

  • yalengineer

    I’ve been exploring the YDN. Prof. Charles Bailyn’s rebuttal is excellent.
    http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2008/sep/11/bailyn-in-defense-of-the-science-requirement/

    • ldffly

      Very good link. The responder who called himself None made excellent points about the survery type science courses. Better to take the intro courses.

  • 1yale3

    This is what a YDA debater comes up with? Come on, I thought we actually had a decent team…

    • River_Tam

      In my experience, college-level parli debate is more about presentation and appeals to judging prefs than critical reasoning.

  • CrazyBus

    Satire? Or drivel?

  • wtf

    Humanities and social science majors at Yale are already extremely over-privileged compared to science majors. Our classes are far away, there aren’t enough buses running to them, there is no real option for food once we get up there (while KBT is beautiful, the prices are so high that $8 for lunch and $4 for breakfast is almost a joke), and there are no watered-down versions of classes that we can take in order to get a Hu/So credit. Real English majors take ENGL114-120, but no real science majors take “An Issues Approach to Biology”.

    The author complains that humanities and social science majors have it too hard, and would like to further draw attention to the plight of the hu/so major while the science majors suck it up, as we have already been doing.

    • silliwin01

      Dilemmas of the Nuclear Age is one of the easiest Hu credits at Yale.

    • penny_lane

      Aside from 120, which is a whole different animal, real English majors don’t take those classes. I don’t believe they even count towards the major. They’re inane, easy, and often taught by grad students, and I suspect they only exist so pre-meds can get their English credits. They are, in fact, exactly what you say they’re not.

      • silliwin01

        What about 121?

        • penny_lane

          I think that’s new, so I can’t comment.

          Edit:

          It looks like it may have replaced the 116 courses, which is a strike against it, but it now requires 120 as a prerequisite. I didn’t take 120, but I consider it relatively rigorous, so perhaps the 121 courses have been revamped to make them more challenging.

  • Robbie

    I’m always afraid that the sci/math majors think I’m an idiot.

    • yalengineer

      Don’t worry, it goes both ways.

  • domlawton

    “By comparison, the quantitative reasoning distributional requirement leads humanities majors to learn important skills like basic microeconomics…”

    Without commenting on the rest of the article, this sentiment makes me apoplectic. There’s almost no one less qualified to talk about economics than the sort of person who takes intro micro to “broaden their horizons” and refuses to take anything more. It teaches you nothing but how to rattle off unbelievably simplistic, reductive, wrong models of the economy, without learning how to complicate them enough that they’re actually relevant or meaningful. Christ, even intro macro would be better. A tiny bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing.

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