July 19, 2022

DO | On Studying the Humanities 

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As of sometime last week, I am officially a humanities major. My switch to English from Human Biology, Health and Society was a move that 2020 Noah would never have expected, given my high school background in math and science. Before this column, writing was never a hobby of mine, let alone something I’d be willing to commit my college education to. 

I have to admit that as a pre-med, I am only really taking on half the burden of a humanities track. My worries about employability are at least temporarily assuaged by the comparably hand-holdy structure of applying for medical school (granted, the extreme levels of competition makes that process scary in its own right). The skeptical confusion that people get when I tell them my major at least turns into mildly doubtful fascination when they learn I’m still on the pre-med track. 

Even if I’m sort of two-timing the liberal arts crew, I still feel I am uniquely qualified to comment on the division that seems to exist between sciences and humanities. I spent much of my time in high school and my first three semesters of college studying chemistry and biology, and even their unholy bastard offshoots like biochemistry and physiology. My friends and I would joke about the woes of such a heavy workload and the intense memorization that was demanded of us, all with a self-deprecating pity made possible by the assurance that, in time, our bank accounts would be there to comfort our traumatized souls. 

As I’ve discussed in a previous column, it’s easy for anyone to latch onto a niche amalgamation of sciences, throw in a dash of some humanitarian altruism, and claim they’ve found their life’s purpose. A 20-year-old’s claim to a future as a pediatric cardiothoracic blah-blah-blah or a mechanical aerospace something-or-other has very little foundation considering the amount of admiration these students attract. While these goals are definitely not easy, they serve as short-term escapes from real deliberations.

Such is the case with much of the STEM experience. Organic chemistry can knock me on my procrastinating rear with just the glance of an eye, but it’s the sort of tedious grind that can be cleared by any type-A with an ax to grind and too much free time; at no point do these classes ask for much more than rote memorization. You’re not forced to relate or empathize to any human experiences, nor do you have to reflect on any of the emotions or ruminations that come in between the caffeinated mental hazes of studying chemistry solvents. You don’t even have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to. 

Living in the STEMbubble gives all problems structure. Committing all of one’s efforts to equations and reactions allows the other modes of thinking to atrophy. Before you know it, you have a B.S. in the hard sciences but are struggling to think of responses for your medical school interview besides “I want to help people.” 

Humanities courses often get a bad rap for being easy A’s that just about anyone can mosey their way into and ace. I won’t deny that it is far easier to earn A’s in these classes (the medians speak for themselves), but the amount of learning that can be done is much greater than in the sciences. 

This past spring, I wrote an essay for my creative nonfiction class about my family’s history and the hardships that both strain and strengthen our relationships. Writing that essay demanded more from me intellectually than any prelim or final I took last semester. I had to ask myself questions that took days of thinking and observing to answer. I was never desperately trying to memorize lab procedures or reaction catalysts, but I had to write ideas and formulate sentences that most clearly expressed the conclusions I had taken so long to arrive at. Something as simple as an awkwardly placed article could completely derail my sentence, and there was no formula sheet or educational YouTuber who could walk me through it step-by-step.

I fear that any “defense” of the humanities will only contribute to the inferiority complex that seems to define relations between humanities majors and their calculator key-punching, test tube-decanting, high wage-earning STEM peers. The liberal arts majors have their privileges too, flaunting their padded GPAs and empathetic professors for the PSB squatters to drool over. But at a school like Cornell, it’s easy for the programmers and physicists to get carried away with their notions of what makes a major difficult. Your education can demand more of you than memorizing lofty scientific concepts. 

Noah Do is a rising junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].Noah’s Arc runs periodically this summer.