“I believe the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups,” lectured C.P. Snow at Cambridge in 1959. In this famous speech, now published under the title “The Two Cultures,” Snow argues that, unlike the intellectual life in the late 19th century, academia in the 20th century was split between the “literary intellectuals” and the “scientists.” Snow said, “They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.” While nonscientists understand the sciences as “brash and boastful,” scientists view literary intellectuals as “lacking in foresight” and in a “deep sense anti-intellectual.”
This division between the arts and sciences continues today and is apparent at Columbia in students’ course choices and outlooks. Even more than 50 years later, most of the people I interviewed echoed C.P. Snow’s description: Hillel Lehmann, a sophomore in the School of General Studies-Jewish Theological Seminary joint program, believes, “There is a pretty clear divide between the sciences and the humanities.” As he puts it, science majors view the humanities as “easier” and humanities students believe that scientists “talk in absolutes” and have a “regimented understanding of the world.”
Yet, despite the clear division that remains, changes in both Columbia’s and Barnard’s academic programs in the last year foreshadow, and are symptomatic of, a trend in national academic curricula that is starting to treat the arts and sciences less as polar opposites, and more as areas that are necessarily related to each other. The formation of a new medicine, literature, and society major, the creation of the Empirical Reasoning Lab, and a new focus on the so-called “digital humanities” are all recent developments toward an integrated scholastic approach on campus. Such changes are taking place at the national level, as well: most significantly, with changes in the MCAT, which, starting in 2015, will include sections on psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior, as well as critical analysis and reasoning skills, in addition to the standard biology and chemistry.
Overall, these paradigm shifts reflect a society that is trying to bridge the gap between the arts and sciences. While such shifts are partly the result of a national ethos that continually challenges the humanities for being “irrelevant,” they also serve, as many students and professors pointed out, the needs of a new generation of students who no longer assume that the arts and sciences are two distinct and irreconcilable cultures.
Team Humanities vs. Team Sciences
Given the increasingly competitive college admissions process, students who are accepted to Barnard and Columbia are almost undoubtedly well-versed in both the sciences and the humanities. Most students enter Columbia with A’s in both AP Biology and English, and might have won prizes in debate as well as in Science Olympiad. Benjamin Spener, a Columbia College junior, describes himself as having excelled in both the sciences and the humanities in high school, “as a lot of Columbia students are, before they come to Columbia. We’re good at a lot of different things. You can’t really get into Columbia by being bad at math.”
Even though most students enter Columbia prepared for both science and humanities classes—a pairing that some hope to continue in Columbia’s Core Curriculum or Barnard’s Nine Ways of Knowing—professor David Vallancourt suggests that this is not how students end up. Vallancourt, who teaches an engineering course for non-engineers, explains that many of the students in the class are scared of even basic calculus. “It is inexplicable to me because, for the
most part, it scares them if I start to veer off in that [a quantitative] direction. And yet they all got into Columbia and Barnard,” he says. “What happened to the math? It seemed to have disappeared for many students. Or they’ll say, ‘Oh, I really haven’t done that since junior year in high school, so it’s rusty.’”
Vallancourt attributes this lack of scientific and mathematical familiarity to the poor ways in which math and science are often taught in high school. The emphasis on memorization usually means that, unless study of technical fields is continued in college, basic concepts are apt to fade away. This stands in contrast to reading literature, for example, which some perceive as a lifelong hobby that one can pursue informally with relative ease. But Vallancourt’s fear also demonstrates how, despite the Core Curriculum’s efforts, students can leave Columbia with little to no finesse in such fields.
Many students affirm Vallancourt’s description. They, too, assert that many humanities students, at some point in college, are intimidated by the sciences. Sarah Levine, a Barnard College junior, wrote over email, “I definitely used to have the notion that one, people in technical fields were fundamentally smarter, and two, that all technical material came easy to them. My two closest friends are both physics and computer science majors and have sometimes had to call me out on that.” Levine, as well as many other students I talked to, has a basic respect for the difficulty of science classes, and the type of thinking they require, despite her own preference for humanities fields.
In contrast, there is often a presumption that humanities courses are “easy” or irrelevant. Spener says that a number of science and math students look at majors such as English and comparative literature as “fluff.” Similarly, Lehmann says, “There’s still a lot of belittling of the humanities among science majors.” He describes the attitudes of his lab partners, who are all M.D./Ph.D.s and who majored in biology and chemistry as undergraduates. “I get a lot of flak for it [my philosophy major]. It’s seen as a lesser degree, like you can’t handle it.” Majoring in science, he says, is “seen as a rite of passage.”
Spener explains that students at Columbia are not the only ones who hold this attitude. During internship interviews, many interviewers “look at one [major] as sort of a hobby and the other as the real thing. I think people often assume that because you’re a math major, you’re hanging out in Spanish classes,” he says. Spener adds that the perception of a “hierarchy of majors” still implicitly persists at Columbia, with the hard sciences—like physics—at the top, and humanities classes at the bottom.
A Middle Ground
Despite this clear divide between the sciences and the humanities for undergraduates at Columbia, professor Stathis Gourgouris also believes that our generation seems more interested in what lies in between: how both the sciences and the humanities contribute, and are related to, each other. “The divide between the sciences and the humanities, which in my day was more or less clear ... is less of a divide nowadays,” he says.
The closing of the divide is noticeable, for Gourgouris, not only in the large number of double majors (across the sciences and arts), but also in students’ general outlooks on both subjects, which often directly affect faculty and administrative initiatives and conversations. Professor Gourgouris says, “You see students majoring in comparative literature, a very difficult major, and neuroscience or psychology, and they have no problem completing their requirements in both fields.” The division between the two is waning, which is “reflected in university professors and some administrators who are beginning to think about how we can bridge these things rather than continuing as if they’re two different things.”
Every student I interviewed confirmed Gourgouris’ observation that there are many double majors or concentrators at Columbia who are studying both the sciences and the humanities. Moreover, the importance of immersing oneself in both areas, rather than specializing in one, was stressed by many of these students. Levine says, “I do wish that I had taken more technical classes early on, and I find that the smartest people I know at Barnard and Columbia are those who are really proficient in both areas.”
However, students not only champion taking classes in both the arts and the sciences, but, as Gourgouris notes, are interested in the overlap between these seemingly disparate pursuits. Spener, who plans to major in both mathematics and Spanish literature, says that his qualitative studies have actually greatly improved his math ability, and vice versa. “I think to be very, very good at math, you need to have such a clear understanding of it that you can express it
in words to anyone. And to be a very good writer, you need to have a very good grasp on rhetoric and logic. So I think it sort of meets in the middle.” Spener adds that, because of the separate skills that both majors stress, he has actually found that he has become better at his literature courses as a result of the logical proofs that are taught mostly in math and science courses.
Lehmann also notes the importance of his humanities classes for his eventual goal of becoming an M.D./Ph.D. The humanities, he says, “Force you to take skills like critical thinking, analysis, and writing, all of which are extremely important in whatever field you’re going into, especially the sciences. Since you’re writing papers and giving presentations, all these skills are fundamental to your success in the scientific field.”
While similar interests initially drew Lehmann to take classes across the arts and sciences, Taylor Chaintreuil, a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior, initially found herself drawn to art history precisely because it was different from her engineering courses. However, Chaintreuil was pleasantly surprised when her minor in art history made her look differently at engineering. “I think art is an interesting place where people deal with technology, critique technology, and comment on technology, including large-scale engineering projects,” she says.
While many students were, as Gourgouis points out, aware of the important roles the humanities play in the sciences and vice versa, most of these students felt that what led students to see them as polar opposites was the manner in which both are taught at Columbia. Science courses are generally taught in a larger lecture format; some introductory classes have many more than 100 students. Professors grade students based on weekly problem sets and high-stakes tests with averages as low as 30 percent. Lehmann also notes that many of the lower-level classes in the sciences stress “regurgitation” of facts, though this is not the case across the board.
This model stands in contrast to English classes, where tests are almost solely used to get students to complete the reading. The emphasis
in such humanities courses is not on technical knowledge but on creative analysis. That emphasis is evident in the greater availability of a small-classroom format, in which students may participate in intellectual debate with their classmates and professors. Grades are largely the result of one to three long papers, for which topics are given to students weeks in advance.
Spener describes how this class structure often leads to snobbery on behalf of scientists and feelings of inferiority on the part of some humanities students. “I think that the way classes are constructed make people consider them as being easier or harder,” he says. “With technical majors, with weekly problem sets and hard exams with low averages—it makes the class seem very hard, and they are hard classes. Whereas if you’re in an English course, if you’re a very dedicated English major, and you’re doing all the reading and highlighting things and writing notes, it’s just as difficult.”
Here, Spener underscores the idea that while students of the humanities may not be held to the same standards of quantitative rigor as science students, they are often made responsible for completing up to a thousand pages of reading per week and for synthesizing that complex information to produce a demanding output of written pages, including formal papers, informal responses, and discussion posts. While science students may know that a correct answer exists and have to work diligently to reach it, humanities students must grapple with the challenges of building meaning in the absence of absolute right answers.
While Spener argues that class structure leads to a perception among some students that the sciences are more difficult, Lehmann has often been disappointed with his science courses for particularly this reason: “Personally, I don’t think lecture format is the most conducive way to learn information. But also, the content aside, the culture you’re trying to create is just not the reality of how science is being done in the field. If you’re doing research, you’re doing science, or medicine, it’s all team based—it’s all integrated learning, and that has much more parallels to the humanities model of small groups, papers, critical approaches.”
Lehmann continues, “We’re not assessed on our critical thinking or whether we understand how they reached their conclusion, but on what the conclusion was. That’s not training scientists, that’s not training researchers or even a doctor. The only reason a doctor is successful as a diagnostician is because of those critical thinking skills. So you do need to have a more in-depth understanding of how they got to that [answer], and you’re not taught to in a science classroom.”
Bridging the Gap
In the last year, Columbia and Barnard have made efforts to bridge this gap between the “two cultures.” One of the most noticeable changes is a new major called “medicine, literature, and society.” Started by Gourgouris, and supported by faculty in the arts, sciences, and medicine, the new major will be housed in the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Gourgouris explains that he will not know until next year what the demand for the major is, but he says that many students have expressed interest in it. While the project was initiated by a group of faculty, he explains that students in the comparative literature department who were interested in both the sciences and the humanities provided an example for this proposal.
“There are a lot of double majors in ICLS,” Gourgouris explains. “How come, for instance, a student can’t do both a major in ICLS and some science major? It’s so difficult. But then we realized, well, it is difficult, but it’s not impossible—and also students are really enjoying it.”
Although the students in ICLS provided a model for it, the new interdisciplinary major also reflects a more general trend in the medical profession toward acknowledging the importance of the types of thinking that students learn by studying the humanities. This national trend is manifest in the recent changes to the MCAT.
While the name of the major explicitly addresses the intersection between medical sciences, literature, and society, Gourgouris says that the major is also for students with the broader goal of combining interests in both the sciences and the humanities—be it through an ecological, technological, or evolutionary lens. This broad mandate is accommodated by the major requirements: Students are able to focus their studies on specialized topics that range from “Neuroscience and the Human” to “Technology Studies.”
ICLS’s focus on the nexus between the humanities and the sciences is also reflected in an event series that the institute has hosted since 2011. Titled “Rethinking the Human Sciences,” the series has continued through 2013.
This union of the sciences and the humanities is not only a product of the broader focus of the medical sciences, but also reflective of a push toward incorporating quantitative methodology into the humanities. This approach is becoming increasingly popular under the name “digital humanities,” spanning disciplines as broad as history, literature, and art. Dennis Tenen, assistant professor of digital humanities and new media studies, who co-taught the first course on digital humanities at Harvard, and history professor Matthew Connelly offered a seminar on this topic this semester at Columbia for undergraduates and graduate students.
The class is half seminar and half lab; students spend the first part of class discussing readings with professors and classmates and the second half working in a computer lab doing computations and quantitative work. Kristine Lu, a Columbia College senior and a student in the seminar, says that she is enthusiastic about the class and the fact that she is able to participate in a field that has already changed research methodologies of the humanities. She also explains, “Undergraduates are motivated by the course because it has a more progressive model,” and because it accommodates students “with a lot of different interests,” from computer science to English.
In response to the increasing popularity of the digital humanities, three professors wrote an open letter asking for the institution of a Digital Humanities Studio Space in Butler Library. In the letter, the professors wrote that the center would provide an open space for “experimentation in the humanities,” synthesizing the experiences of the ‘artist’s studio’ and ‘the science lab.’
This move toward the incorporation of quantitative methods and technology into the humanities has already taken effect in the urban studies major in the last few years, a change that Levine characterizes as a shift away from mostly qualitative course work. Levine, who is majoring in urban studies and who is happy about this change, says, “The urban studies department at Barnard has done a great job of incorporating more quantitative projects and technical skills into the major. We all have to take a course in GIS mapping software, which, apart from being a really marketable skill when looking for internships and jobs,
has also substantially improved the scope and depth of theses out of the department.”
One way in which Barnard has helped majors in disciplines such as urban studies is through a new Empirical Reasoning Lab, which was instituted last semester to help faculty “integrate empirical reasoning and data analysis into their course syllabi.” Levine expresses excitement about the creation of resources for humanities students who are interested in learning more about computers or the sciences, but are afraid to do so. She believes it will “push social science students outside of their comfort zone and into more ambitious research and theses.”
Some see these synthesizing trends as nothing more than a final attempt on the part of humanities scholars to make themselves relevant by attaching themselves to the sciences. Gourgouris admits that this did partly motivate the ICLS’s formation of the “medicine, literature, and society” major. “The initial query that brought this into the forefront as an idea had to do with the fact that, as humanities people, we are constantly bombarded with this idea” that humanities are irrelevant, he says. This is far from the whole story, though. Gourgouris also suggests that the synthesis is a natural progression made by both the humanities and the sciences, as evident from the changes in the MCAT—a change that is actually a better argument for humanities’ relevancy.
The object, he says, is not to “prove that we’re something like the sciences—or we desire to be recognized like the sciences because we’re just as important—but to show that there is actually something in the sciences that is lacking, which the humanities have—and also the reverse, and that there are some things that the humanities are lacking.”
It is highly unlikely that there will ever be a return to the integration between the arts and sciences that existed in the 19th century England that C.P. Snow refers to, as the language and concepts of both have become increasingly complex and require some degree of specialization. However, these recent changes do reflect an academic culture that views that period as a model to be imitated, rather than as something to be rejected as outdated or impossible. Today, more than 50 years after C.P. Snow asked whether it was time that we begin to close the gap between the two cultures, it seems that people in both the sciences and the humanities are—slowly but surely—learning to agree.