Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Arts vs. Sciences?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Arts vs. Sciences?

Is this an Arts brain or a Sciences brain? Can YOU tell?

As readers of this blog know, though this blog is sponsored by Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts AND Sciences it leans heavily towards the “Arts” part, better known as the humanities. Since I, the writer, am an English major, this is probably natural. Of course, I have always made an effort to address the math and science-y side of things, but I’m not very well-versed in these disciplines, and so I’m sure I’ve missed something here and there. The thing is, I don’t dislike the sciences. In fact, I’m not even scared of them. What I’m scared of is math. I think I developed a block around 5th grade when they switched me from the dumb math class to the smart math class and I couldn’t catch up, so then by the time I got switched back to the dumb math class I’d missed things and I was totally confused. Yep. Ever since then I’ve been afraid of math. I have a deep psychological fear that I am going to add 3 + 3 and make a stupid mistake and get 9 (see what I did there? I multiplied instead. Embarrassing fact: I’ve actually done that on tests before because I get so nervous).

But this fear of math shouldn’t keep me back from things I enjoy, science-y subjects like astronomy. And I try not to let it. But the problem seems to be that, even in schools like GSAS which are supposed to incorporate the arts and the sciences, the divide is jut too wide, especially by the time we get to grad. school. This isn’t any particular school’s fault either…it simply seems to be the nature of the American education system. An author of an interesting article in The Chronicle seems to think that this is because, as a nation, we do not value "science literacy." “I have no memories of my science and math professors telling us that reading and writing were unimportant or optional. I can’t say the same for my humanities professors,” he says. 

In my experience, though, this isn’t the problem. In fact, I never had any humanities professors say science wasn’t important. On the other hand, I have had a math teacher (not professors mind you, a teacher in high school) who insisted that everyone must love math and who questioned the value of studying something like English in college. The humanities are often viewed as “soft” by these kinds of people. Hence the term “hard sciences.”

In all honesty, I think the problem doesn’t lie with who places too little value on what. That just ends up turning into an unproductive blame game. Everyone always has a bias…it’s almost as natural to favor your own subject and others like it as it is to favor your own children. The problem is that teachers at all levels, from elementary to graduate school, and in all subjects, from English to Physics, are usually “naturals” in whatever field they teach. Because of this, they often don’t know how to teach to people who don’t grasp it as quickly and instinctively. I felt this problem first hand in middle and high school. The year I got a math teacher who knew how to (and took the time to) explain math to my English-major brain, I suddenly wasn’t afraid anymore. I could do math. I got A's. Then, the next year, I got another teacher who didn’t know what he was doing and it was back to the fear. I noticed the same kind of thing happening for the people who went on to do things like Physics and Economics in college. Though many of them generally feared writing essays, there was one English teacher who just made everyone understand how to put together a sentence, or how to present evidence or create a convincing thesis statement. In her class, with her training, everyone could write a decent paper. 

If we’re not going to bring the disciplines closer together, which I know would be very difficult now that everyone has become so specialized, the Chronicle author is right: we have to do something about all this earlier, in elementary, middle, and/or high school. But I don’t think his proposal is quite the solution. Teachers from all subjects and at all levels need to embrace the importance of all others. We need to be at least a little more interdisciplinary in our thinking, even if we’re not part of a more interdisciplinary department like American Studies. A liberal arts education isn’t actually supposed to be, as he seems to think, all about the humanities. At least that’s not my understanding of it. The liberal arts education so touted in America is supposed to create well-rounded individuals who have experience in the humanities, the social sciences, the hard sciences, and anything else you can think of. We need to remember this and start to make sure students appreciate every discipline early. We need to learn how to teach to people who don’t just “get it” right away. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to make people teach subjects they weren’t necessarily inclined to. I know the Jesuit Pedagogy Seminar here at Fordham makes students sit in on classes that are outside of their departments, and I think that’s a really good start.

One of the most rewarding experiences I ever had was subbing for an afterschool program called “Hands on Science” as a college freshman in Swarthmore, PA the year before I transferred to Barnard. Having to explain basic science concepts to elementary school students, making science exciting for them even though it wasn’t “my thing” (I guess my thing would be teaching them how exciting reading can be), helped me appreciate my peers who were still studying things like Biology on a more advanced level. Plus, there’s nothing like being the first one to teach a whole group of kids what ROY G BIV means. Even if I am an English major.


  1. Ahh, I've been in that math situation before. They placed me in a way-too-smart Geometry class my freshman year of high school, and I realized I was sinking after getting 18/40s on my math quizzes. I was beyond happy to go to the "dumb" classes a month later. I was a superstar in that class! Hahaha


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