A physicist and a writer walk into a bar. The writer sits and reads a flimsy paperback novel while the physicist pores over several large volumes of physics textbooks. The physics enthusiast then says to the novelist, “I knew a physicist who became a writer because of his lack of imagination.”
Despite being set up as a (not very good) joke, this was, more or less, an actual interaction that occurred between a stranger and me. If you substitute “prospective English major” in for “writer” and “coffee shop” in for “bar” and add a lengthier dialogue that humanizes the physicist, but ruins the timing of the story, you have a completely accurate account of that conversation.
Comments like that may seem overly blunt and rather disrespectful, but to a student pursuing a humanities major, they are commonplace. As a prospective English major, I have had to strike a compromise of defending my academic interest to my parents and consoling them with an additional, more practical degree. In telling people about my prospective major, I have experienced surprised expressions and “good for you”s at best, and patronizing expressions and “knowing” grins at worst. Even when speaking with fellow liberal arts students, I have a tendency to talk my serious literary interests down: I’m an English major; I hate tests. I’m an English major; I’m just not a science person. I’m an English major; I’m afraid of right or wrong answers. For some reason, I feel the need to qualify a decision to pursue a major in the arts and humanities, and the easiest way to defend that choice is to chalk it up to not a choice at all, but a fate determined by one’s inabilities. Why do I feel the need to justify my field of study in this way?
As usual, I choose to blame society. Seniors take certain lower-level English courses for an easy A. The stereotype of the starving artist who, if lucky, becomes famous posthumously remains a cultural paradigm. As fields like economics, psychology and political science move more in the direction of mathematical models, biology and randomized control trials, the social sciences, which are supposed to fall equidistant between the humanities and the hard sciences, demonstrate a strong bias towards the latter. Even the name “social sciences” suggests a desperate attempt to distinguish itself, as much as possible, from its artsy neighbor and sidle up, as close as possible, to the hard sciences.
Sure, elements of the hard sciences have much merit and should be integrated into more fields. However, why does this relationship have to be so one-sided? And why are the arts and humanities and the hard sciences so polarized? Why are literature and history viewed as being easily accessible, but subjects like chemistry and math seem to possess certain barriers to entry? Why do I feel the need to say apologetic phrases like “I’m not a science person” when defending an English major, but when an engineering student discloses her major, no explanation is necessary? Is this perceived divide between the hard sciences and other fields of study simply that — a perception? Is it an effect of our overly scientific society that is obsessed with practical application and results-based evaluation? Or does this division derive from something far more fundamental, perhaps the intrinsic qualities of the fields themselves?
Origin, ultimately, is unimportant. What is important is our failure in reimagining a different kind of education. What is important are the continued remarks, behaviors and perceptions that perpetuate this divisive hierarchy and discourage innovation and reformation in the subjects we learn about and the way we look at the world. In the context of Amherst’s open curriculum, humanities students will take a few quantitative classes and science students will take some arts courses, but for the most part, these classes will never be viewed as more than isolated incidents or short, leisurely strays from a person’s structured academic path. But we should not view our brief forays into different majors’ territories as hobbies or mere badges of our liberal arts education. Instead, we should use them to enhance our learning and make it truly interdisciplinary.