The most remarkable thing about engineering and science majors at Yale is how many of them are also interested in the humanities. In the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, engineering project teams are replete with students enrolled in music, English and philosophy classes. The synthesis of the sciences and the humanities is a defining characteristic of the undergraduate experience for many Yalies.
I came to Yale as a first year from a culture that saw the humanities as soft subjects for soft people. The Yale community’s unabashed embrace of the humanities was refreshing. At other schools, English teachers, for instance, justify their subject in terms of those more relevant to employment. They argue that strong communication skills are important in scientific research, or that literature informs engineers about the broad effects their inventions will have on society. This model of the humanities subordinates them to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. It denies their intrinsic worth and relegates them to second-class status. But Yale’s humanities departments don’t subscribe to this model. Instead, they present students with one of self-sufficiency. At Yale, the humanities are valuable not for the sake of the sciences but for their own sake.
Those of us who study both the humanities and the sciences do not need the latter to justify the former. Instead, our abiding interest in the humanities is justification enough. Because the study of the humanities has intrinsic value, it moves beyond simply augmenting the sciences. In fact, the study of STEM can actually augment the humanities. In my experience studying English and computer science, I have found not just that students can learn about the humanities from STEM classes, but that there are aspects of the humanities that students can only learn from STEM classes.
The study of English literature deals with human to human communication, while computer science deals with that of human to machine. Naturally, the two subjects employ many of the same techniques. Computer programming is an exercise in clarity and concision, two qualities that are essential to English writing. The main purposes of both English prose and computer code are to communicate an idea and to elicit a reaction, and although the specific mechanisms used to achieve these purposes differ, the process of writing is the same. Programming teaches the student how to distill an abstract idea into words, structure a coherent argument from disparate components and revise a written draft. It also brings an awareness of the effects that words have on their reader, whether that reader is a human or a computer. When writing English prose, it is easy to make the mistake of merely documenting one’s own thoughts without considering how to communicate them to others. Computer programming requires the writer to explain ideas so clearly that even a dumb machine can understand them.
Obviously, these skills are not unique to computer science, and students can certainly learn them in the comfortable confines of the English Department. But programming presents the fundamentals of writing in a way that makes them easier to learn. Clean, well-written code strips away the frills and complications of English prose, reducing language to its most basic elements.
Most people who take computer science classes don’t become significantly better writers or more perceptive readers, but that is because neither they nor the professor are trying to apply the course material to that end. Someone who reads a Shakespeare sonnet focusing solely on the use of capital letters does not necessarily gain a better understanding of its artistic qualities. STEM classes are generally not designed to teach students anything about the arts, but an interested student can leverage them to do just that.
Computer science deals with areas of language that are far more advanced than anything covered in English classes. Even the modernist writers, who vastly expanded the conception of what literature could be, never went as far as the programmers have. As I said before, literature is written for a human reader, while code is typically designed for an inhuman machine. Remarkably, however, computer scientists have devised techniques, such as tail recursion, which enable them to phrase algorithms in a way that is elegant to a human and also efficient for a computer. With this technique, the same piece of writing communicates optimally with both the human and the inhuman reader. In this way, computer code fundamentally alters our understanding of language and communication.
Computer science, for me, does not merely augment the study of English, it advances it. I encourage my fellow humanities majors to venture up Science Hill: not to get jobs after college, not to gain respect from society, but to deepen their understanding of the humanities in ways they only can by studying STEM.
Kathan Roberts is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at email@example.com .