Back in one of the communications skills threads, Karen comments about science and humanities:
It’s easy enough for a humanities major to avoid doing much science in school. The converse is not true. It strikes me that for those earlier scientists who attended univeristy, both their early education and university years were more suited to focusing on the science.
This relates to the communication issue as this often means that the science inclined are often put in a position of being evaluated on their communication in area that are areas of weakness for them, those areas where communications are often based on subjective evaluation. For some, this is merely something to get though. For others, it may put a major roadblock on their path into science.
This is an area where I’ve had to slightly moderate my opinion recently. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important for humanities people to learn some math and science– I still think they’re a little too coddled– but some recent conversations with students have led me to think that the science majors aren’t quite as put-upon as I used to think.
Specifically, I have heard of a surprisingly (to me) large number of cases of students who were, trying to fit English 101 into their final term of their senior year, because they had managed to get through without taking a single literature class to that point. And I’ve had to really push a few students to take the required literature courses.
I’m not suggesting that these requirements need to be dropped or loosened– I’m just going to be a little more vigilant about making sure my advisees are taking their required humanities courses earlier. But I have realized that it’s a little easier to duck the humanities than I used to think, even at an elite liberal arts school.
Of course, the effects of this are very different than the effects of ducking math and science. Avoidance of math and science continues to have a sort of institutional sanction that avoidance of the humanities does not– someone taking the bare minimum of required humanities courses will have a very difficult time getting into Phi Beta Kappa, for example, while students taking only the minimum required math and science get in much more easily. But there is more of a culture of avoidance than I had appreciated.
I don’t think, though, that this has all that much to do with communications skills. The core problem is not so much that science majors don’t have the reading and writing ability to do the classes, it’s that they have a dim view of the whole endeavor. The attitude that arts and humanities are all just a pointless bullshit game is surprisingly common, even among students at a liberal arts college.
(To be fair, I am occasionally prone to that myself, even when I was a student at an elite liberal arts college. Though I felt that way most strongly when I was taking 300-level English classes– the cavalcade of critical theory we ran through in one of them put me off literature classes entirely for two years.)
In the end, I don’t think that attitude is any more appropriate than the “Science is just for nerds…” attitude from the other side of the Two Cultures divide (though it’s probably less harmful to society as a whole). Scientists have an obligation to understand the world we live in, and that necessarily includes some understanding of arts and culture. Which means scientists ought to take some real humanities courses, just as humanities majors ought to take some real science courses. The proper response to the innumeracy of intellectuals is to set a higher mathematical standard for all educated people, not for scientists to turn their backs entirely on the arts in a fit of pique.
So, as I said, I’ll be making an effort in future to step on that sort of thinking a little more quickly, in my advisees and in my own writing. I can’t guarantee success– there’s a certain level of literary over-analysis that I’ll never stop rolling my eyes at– but I will try.