Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Science versus Humanities

Originally posted 9/9/2004

A bit of a brouhaha developed some time ago as the result of a post by the blogger Michael Williams in which he questioned whether those who pursued careers in scientific fields could just as easily have chosen a career in the humanities, but the reverse is not true. William's post was prompted by an article, "Science for Smart, English for Dumb," by Eli Lehrer. Justin Katz has taken on the task of debating Williams, and the two have gone back and forth on the matter.

I think I can bring a unique perspective to this debate. I have a B.S in Engineering, currently do a lot of database management and am currently pursuing and M.A. in History. So, you see, I have a foot planted firmly in both camps. To properly discuss this, I'll use "ME" as an example. So let's crank up the way back machine, shall we?

I did well in high school, regardless of subject matter, generally. However, I was more proficient in the Humanities than in Math and Science. Why? I simply enjoyed them more, particularly History. But guess what. . . History didn't pay. Here's where I agree with Williams. I decided to pursue an Engineering degree and did so. I went to an fairly industry specific school, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and took extensive classes in Mechanical and Electrical engineering. Both obviously heavy on "science," and being familiar with both types of engineering required to be an adequate shipboard engineer. Yet, in which classes did consistently receive better grades? You guessed it, the Humanities, in this case English and History.

The course load at the Academy was heavy (averaged about 20 credit hours/quarter) because one year is spent at sea, training and working for slave wages as a "cadet." But I stray from my point. With at least 15 credit hours a quarter centered on science, and only 3 or so in the Humanities, the focus was obviously on the former. Given the goals of the school, it seems obvious that the Humanities Dep't. existed to provide the bare requirements for undergraduate education. Regardless of their relative unimportance in the overall realm of the Academy's educational manifesto, I embraced these courses and did appreciably better in them than in my harder, science based courses of my major. This could be because I liked them more, or because they were simply easier. Looking back, it seems like both would apply.

Why is this so? I think it's because the Humanities, especially at the undergraduate level, can lend themsevles to liberal levels of interpretation for student work. However, I also think that, as in my case, if students are interested in the topic, have decent reading comprehension and writing ability, then they will succeed. I guess I can say that I found humanities courses easier, but that may have more to do with me being more intrinsically interested in the subject matter than in any "intelligence" on my part.

Moving on, I've worked in the Engineering field now for 13 years. I started out applying my skills by working on ships, making beaucoup dollars and living life large. I then met the right girl, got married, and "came ashore," taking a job at a small engineering consulting firm in Rhode Island. I have since picked up computer skills, including a smattering of C++ and Delphi along with healthy doses of database administration skills. But this isn't a resume, merely an illustration of the point that I continue to enhance my scientific background. While still working, I decided to pursue my first love, and am currently striving for an MA in History. It is going well and I have come to appreciate the amount of thought and intellectual dexterity and depth required for a career in this particular branch of the humanities.

Given this as background, I think the essential point is that Humanities at the undergraduate level are not held to a high standard. The nature of subject matter results in a testing apparatus that leaves much open to interpretation, especially in these days of Literary Criticism (the bastardization of it, not the concept) and Post-Modernism that, though the latter is slowly fading away, still are firmly entrenched in the Ivory Tower. Conversely, the structural nature of the sciences and the fact that there is generally only one answer to any specific problem does not lend itself to such interpretation. Those who can learn the rules and apply them as they solve problems, succeed. This kind of structural intelligence is probably different than that required of the humanities. Neither is better, but the former is more measurable and quantifiable, thus trusted, while the latter's lack of measurables can lead to skepticism of quality.

Today's society offers more opportunity for immediate financial gain for those in scientifc fields as the results speak for themselves. The sciences all have nationally recognized standards. To be confirmed as qualified, a student or professional must pass a test. The test is, generally speaking, the same regardless of whether you graduated from Colgate, MIT or the University of Rhode Island. There are no similar, standard tests for the Humanities fields, to my knowledge. There is no way to quantify and compare. All qualification relies on reputation on the institution from which one graduated. There are no cold, hard facts to say "qualified," it's all based on perception formed by institutional reputation and subjective analysis of scholarly work.

Speaking now of the field of History in particular, to attain the highest degree, a PhD, requires one to basically sacrifice all life for a decade. After taking a year or two to get an MA, a PhD candidate must jump through the hoops of a particular program, usually embarking on independent study, serving as a lackey for his "advisor" by "assisting" him in teaching undergratuate courses, attending mandatory seminars and generally becoming indoctrinated into "the way we do things." All for about $10000 a year. Then it takes anywhere from 3-10 years to complete a Doctoral thesis. Gee, how could one resist? Obviously, money cannot be the motivating factor here. As a working man with a family, it is simply impossible for me to pursue a PhD after I receive my MA. That's OK and it's not really the point of this piece.

What is the point is that perhaps what is needed is for more "science" guys like me to cross the Rubicon and enter the Humanities, especially after we have put some years between our undergrad work and our current careers. In my courses, I have come across many students, either just out of undergrad or current teachers, who have never left the Academy and have a particular, often shared, view of the world. They don't realize that academia isn't the real world, and people who have worked, particularly those who have attained a level of professional success, can do a vital service by infilitrating those ivory towers, knocking down a wall or two and allowing in some fresh air. I've tried to do so, without stepping on toes and I think it is a necessity.

The Humanities aren't simply about being well-read or informed, more importantly, they help to hone skills of critical thinking. I don't mean logical thinking here, as can be found in the sciences, I mean critical; there is a difference. It's not about cultural snobbery, it's about better knowing ourselves as humans. It's about getting beneath the MTV/short attention span society and refusing to take everything at face value based on an image or conventional wisdom. It doesn't allow you to make assumptions about anything. Critical thinking doesn't have to be deconstructionist, it's most valuable contribution to society is that it can help to strengthen valued themes or institutions and the like. Once subjected to rigorous analysis informed by 2,000 years of Western Civilization and, now, Eastern and even Aboriginal if you wish "Civilization," cherished ideals such as religion or national history can emerge stronger. The Humanities are the certification societies of our culture. It's members just don't print out and send you a certificate. Yes, there is no concrete standard of measure or a priori concept. The Humanities deal with us, with Humans, and how we manifest what and how we think. Human is the root of the term, after all, and humans have Free Will, the great unknowable variable. No science has yet calculated a value for it.

Note: Originally posted here.

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