September 20, 2018

BARAN | STEM and Humanities? Apples and Oranges.

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“Yeah, I’m a bioengineering major,” he says, his eyes shifting upwards as he does so. He knows what they’re thinking. The flash of admiration in their eyes and the almost-almost-imperceptible deference in conversation tell all.

My friend Rollin is the smartest person I’ve met, and he deserves this treatment. But not for the simple reason that he is a majoring in biological engineering. For better or for worse (I’d bet on the latter), the college world fosters a community where our majors define our intellect, at least on first impression.

In most U.S. college communities, STEM majors are awarded a certain prestige denied to humanities majors. A physics or engineering student is considered to be partaking in a more rigorous and intellectually demanding curriculum than a government or English student. Thus, many make the large leap in logic to the assumption of higher intelligence in those STEM majors. This may be more prevalent at Cornell than other schools, considering our engineering school is among the best in the world (well, Cornell as a whole is among the best, but the engineering school outstrips even its host in terms of rankings.) Students sometimes try to deny this assumption, or give the ’ol “they’re apples and oranges; they can’t be compared,” but most still, implicitly or explicitly, identify STEM majors as harder.

I talked to a junior, who asked not to be named, and they couldn’t give a reason for their prejudice, saying, “Yeah, I don’t know. I just feel like math is harder than writing.” Others, like Ushbah Asio ’19, gave more concrete reasons, citing “more logic-based classes” in STEM subjects as the reason for their heightened rigor. According to Asio, an English major is a bit easier because of its “opinion-based curriculum.”

Another anonymous source said that although they personally find “writing a paper [to be] harder than…studying for a math test,” they ceded that “people perceive English or history to not be as employable, or as a joke major.”

Even faculty can, knowingly or not, bolster this toxic mindset in their students. For example, in reading a form I had to sign for my military science class, I was shocked to find some extremely condescending material. Thinking of this article, I whipped out my phone right there and then, in full uniform, to snap a picture of the form and the incriminating sentence contained within it. In the form, a member of the AROTC cadre instructed us cadets to “strive for optimum performance academically.” Understandable. But he goes on: “If that is a 3.0 GPA in a tough STEM major or a 4.0 in a humanities major, make a plan to get there.” He probably didn’t mean to put down humanities majors. The implicit biases I mentioned earlier about STEM majors being more difficult than humanities majors were simply manifesting themselves in his writing. Regardless, I am amazed that someone supposed to be instructing us and fostering our growth could so summarily dismiss a whole group of majors (at Cornell!) as to be relatively easy. The disrespect was palpable.

Comments like these can be frustrating to those majoring in the humanities. A woman in my English class, overhearing me speaking about this column, jumped into the conversation to vent. Callie recounted times she had, upon telling people she was an English major, received comments along the lines of, “Oh, so do you want to teach?” and “Nice, you can pretty much bullshit everything.” Hearing that on the regular can be exasperating, partly because they’re simply untethered to reality. Callie wants to go into journalism, and bullshitting essays is all fun and games until you get the paper returned. Especially in upper-level humanities courses, where outstanding writing skills are expected, there is no “pretty much bullshitting everything.”

But how did these perceptions about the rigor of these two disparate fields develop? Prof. Rayna Kalas, English, attributes them in part to the “perception that if something is pleasurable, then it is not difficult.” While many STEM majors seem to begrudgingly toil over endless problem sets, humanities majors often attack their readings with relish. That is not to say our work isn’t difficult (my brain actually shut down after trying to read Middle English for an extended period of time last week.) We just tend to enjoy our work. Since when did difficulty and pleasure become mutually exclusive?

Prof. Dan Luo, biological and environmental engineering, has an alternative take on the issue. According to him, the “major difference (pun intended) in difficulty between STEM and humanities has developed partially due to the need of supplying more focused, rigid and quantitative solutions in STEM exams than those in humanities.” I would agree with that. On STEM exams, the questions often have one correct answer. If you arrive at that answer more frequently than others, you’re smart. Thus, it is very easy to quantify intelligence in STEM. On the other hand, the most common form of assessment in the humanities is simply writing. And grading written work is inevitably nebulous. Nobody can put a check mark next to each sentence. Rather, success in the humanities relies on the felicity and cogency of the writer. If someone gets a bad grade on a paper, they can attribute their poor performance to the professor ‘not liking their style’ or ‘wanting something specific,’ which is difficult to do vis-à-vis STEM assignments.

I dismissed the “apples and oranges” adage earlier in the article. That might have been a bit hypocritical, as I’m going to use it now. I’m prospectively a history major with an English minor, and I do not find math enjoyable, nor do I particularly excel at it. I enjoy reading and writing. Hence my choice of study. Similarly, I assume that students in highly quantitative fields probably feel the opposite. We recently got our first paper back in my FWS, and one of the architecture students in the class bombed it. He’s in one of the most rigorous programs at Cornell, and I could never do the kind of work he does. But I did pretty well on the paper. Apples and oranges, I guess.

Christian Baran is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Honestly runs every other Friday this semester. He can be reached at