Why do so many science majors dislike literature courses?

8 05 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes, faithful readers!

I’ve just weathered yet another finals week while simultaneously ending my freshman year of college, and I hope that anyone who has ever found themselves in a similar predicament will forgive my inability to verbally grasp the overwhelming sense of relief I’m currently experiencing. This new-found freedom has enabled me to revisit my previously-neglected blog at long last, and I assure everyone that I’ll begin posting again at regular intervals shortly. Being a philosophically-inclined individual as well as a nerdy science buff, I frequently utilize such ‘down time’ to reflect on my experiences and to ponder.

There is a trend I’ve observed which I’m convinced has been noted by thousands of others as well: if given the choice between a  math course and a literature course, a student of science will almost invariably select the former. This phenomenon is particularly striking to yours truly, because I would unhesitatingly express my preference for the latter in such a situation. In this regard, I’m an outcast of sorts in the nerd community: especially considering the fact that the image of a formula-thumping, perpetually calculating academic has become synonymous with the word ‘geek’ through the odious miracle of stereotypical pop culture.

At the onset, the traditional scientist’s affinity to mathematics seems (and in most cases is) only natural. After-all, the memorization of equations, algorithms and their kin is an essential element of nearly every branch of science imaginable. But are literary classes so very useless to this end by comparison?

I seriously doubt it.

Let’s examine the qualities deemed desirable by these courses and how they can contribute to the forging of a highly successful scientist. While many of my colleagues (and by this term I mean scientifically-oriented classmates), cringe at the thought of reading, analyzing, and discussing Steinbeck’s novels or Shakespeare’s plays, I greet these notions with eager anticipation. And do you know what I’ve discovered? Following such a procedure bears an eerie resemblance to the hallmark of scientific progress that is the systematic gathering of evidence, making of logical conclusion based thereon, and discussing these findings with intellectual peers who have observed the same data.

Allow me to set the scene. During the Literature course I’d enrolled in this past semester, we were assigned various short stories and one-act stage dramas on a weekly basis all of which were to be discussed during the majority of the class period upon their due date. These discussions were frequently heated, as many of the tales involved controversial subjects. When ‘The Bridegroom’ by Ha Jin was assigned, I knew that we were in for just such an analysis. The narrative chronicles  the plight of a homosexual Chinese man named Baowen during the 1970’s who, upon his discovery, is forced to undergo horrific and tortuous procedures (such as being thrown into an electrically-charged bathtub) because the nation’s government is convinced that homosexuality is both a voluntary ‘bad habit’ and ‘curable’, despite the evidence to the contrary as presented later by the very doctor who is obligated to subject him to these deplorable exercises.

When the time for the in-class discussion arrived, one of my classmates (who shall remain nameless) was of the opinion that Baowen ‘flaunted’ his sexual orientation. However, when she was asked for evidence to support her claim, none could be found in favor of her position. In contrast, a huge amount of what’s revealed about Baowen’s private life suggests that he was meticulously discrete and was never ‘caught in the act’.

If a better analogy exists to the concept of scientific peer review, I am at a complete loss to identify it.

The reason why I prefer literature, history, and political classes to their mathematical counterparts is precisely because of this phenomenon. In a math course, the answer is given and can’t be questioned (with the exception of those pertaining to the the subject’s highly theoretical branches), but in a literature or humanities course, the identity of the ‘correct answer’ is open to debate.  This is not to say that in these classes all answers are equally valid, for they certainly aren’t. But the question of which are likely more accurate than their competitors is answered by weighing the conclusions against the evidence and discussing to what length does the latter support or reject the former. While math teachers assign grades based upon the student’s ability to absorb information and regurgitate it at will, literature teachers assign grades based upon the student’s ability to reason their way through the facts towards a logical conclusion. Proficiency in both qualities is absolutely essential for anyone hoping to become a decent scientist. So why are the courses which foster the development of the second trait largely ignored by science majors? 

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all.




12 responses

8 05 2009
Literature » Why do so many science majors dislike literature courses? « The …

[…] Read a strange post:  Why do so most scholarship majors be vexed novel courses? « The … […]

8 05 2009

Interesting, and thought-provoking, post! Based on my own (now rather vague) recollections of my undergraduate days at an engineering/science school, I would suspect that some of the sciencey-types’ ambivalence towards literature results from either: 1) the relevance of literature and the humanities is not always immediately apparent to the very practical-minded; and 2) humanities types often look at the world in a way very much at odds with the way that scientists/engineers think, and. . .it’s uncomfortable for some folks! This divide persists even up to the graduate-school level, and certainly cuts both ways.

The phenomenon of not being able to discuss/debate the subject matter is an interesting point, and one that I would suspect is largely associated with subject matter as well as the level of the course (introductory vs. advanced). Many of my upper-level geology and graduate-level courses were not simply rote repetition and memorization (thank goodness!!!). Hopefully, you’ll see a change in (at least some) areas of your subject as you progress. . .

Congrats on finishing finals!

9 05 2009

Hi, Andy!

You’ve raised some very good points. I too have observed the profound difference in philosophical and personal outlook between humanities majors and science majors. Personally, I think that pop-culture stereotyping plays a role in this divide…the scientist sees the artist as a woefully impractical and illogical dreamer while the artist sees the scientist as a cold, emotionless introvert. I tend to appreciate the value of both areas, but I must concede that the general mentalities which accompany their enthusiasts are often, as you point out, “very much at odds”.

If upper-level geology courses are befitting of your description, I can hardly wait to enroll in several of them further down the road. However, the source of my disgruntlement is primarily derived from the math courses in which I’ve been forced to participate, for even the introductory science classes often manage to incorporate some sort of discussion, verbally or written, which compares and contrasts differring opinions on scientific controversies.

11 05 2009
Zach Miller

I’m an English major, so I took my fair share of literature courses (mostly focused on writing, research, and rhetoric, though). I must say that I greatly disliked the Literary Criticism and Poetry classes, because it strikes me as terribly self-serving and non-educational to do, say, a Marxist reading of Shakespear or something. There’s just no point, and Shakespear wasn’t even aware of Marxism. Our poetry professor would routinely well up during certain readings–her impassion was impossible, and she would grade people down for “reading too far into” a poem, or for giving an interpretation that she didn’t agree with.

My big problem with literature is that is doesn’t help anybody. Cancer won’t be cured by poets and the K/T Extinction won’t be solved by doing a feminist reading of Candide. Are the humanities helpful? Sure, but they ask questions I’m simply not interested in.

So if I ever DO go back to school (I probably will), I’ll be enrolling in a science major, if at all possible.

11 05 2009
Zach Miller

Major = grad program (hopefully).

12 05 2009


I can relate to your frustration with the unfortunate lack of objectivity which frequently accompanies literature courses. However, I think that it’s highly erroneous to assume that literature is devoid of merit (I realize that you don’t susbcribe to this notion, however an unfortunately large proportion of science majors I’ve met do). After-all, the arts (and in partiuclar the literary arts) are critical to historians because they can greatly assist in the capturing of a dead civilization or period’s intangible culture. For instance, “Beowulf” is one of the only tools we have capable of reconstructing medival Denmark from the 8th to the 11th century while “The Aeneid”s heavily nationalistic account of Roman history reveals the extent to which the empire relied on propoganda.
I’m not suggesting that prospective science students should switch majors based on my observations. All I’m insinuating is that they should realize how highly beneficial literature and other humanities courses can be in their field.

10 06 2009
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[…] the enormous success accumulated by a recent post which begged the question “Why do so many science majors dislike literture courses?”, I’ve decided to ask a similar question which, like its predecessor, compares […]

4 07 2009
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3 11 2009
Science Communication: What We Can Learn From The Masters « The Theatrical Tanystropheus

[…] and teachers utterly loathe the arts and social sciences; a paradox I’ve previously discussed here. I’ve always felt that science and the humanities can learn a great deal from each other and […]

14 01 2010
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[…] would seem to suggest, among other things, that scientists could benefit from learning about literature, though few institutions of higher education offer programs designed to take advantage of bringing […]

18 02 2010

meh, i’d choose neither because i suck at both.

25 01 2011
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