why would anyone engage in the masochism that is majoring in a math or science discipline? in hindsight, there's an awful lot to be said for the liberal arts. true, it may not offer the variety of career paths a degree in another field might, but as far as getting the most out of college, it's probably the best choice.

let me state that i don't mean any disrespect toward the liberal arts. but let's face it - the best thing about that academic area is that there are no right answers. in other types of courses, you're not really supposed to think. geniuses and prodigies have already done that part for you. you're only meant to come away with an understanding of the stuff they thought about.

no right answers means no nights up later than you're willing to be, watching the symbols of calculus and set theory swim around each other making less and less sense, taunting you with the knowledge that the information necessary to complete problem 18.c.ii is in there somewhere, but nowhere you'll ever be able to find it. in liberal arts, you think up the thesis first, while you're still largely coherent. you offer a few strong paragraphs in support at the beginning of the paper and by the time your mental faculties start giving out, you've reached the point at which your professor won't be reading too closely, anyway. you get to dash off enough nonsense to fill the rest of a requisite number of pages and then you get to go to bed.

if a math major turns in an assignment full of wrong answers, she's just wrong. period. if a literature major turns in a paper full of complete bullshit, she gets the benefit of the doubt. the faculty will go searching for her thesis, attributing meaning to typos and sentence fragments.

liberal arts majors don't need to spend as much time absorbing. the good ones can skim the readings, pick out a few significant phrases, and build a top-rate thesis around them with only a vague idea of the context. even the bad ones don't need to read too closely, and surely not more than once (unless perhaps we're talking about beowulf). their focus is up to them. no wrong or right, merely well-supported.

the college kids you see in coffee shops at four in the morning, silent as they pour over stained textbooks? the ones standing in the supermarket checkout line with a case of off-brand soda and economy size vivarin? the ones sleeping in a campus/student activities/union building at odd hours of the night or monring? those kids aren't liberal arts majors. liberal arts majors are in bed, at the bar, cleaning their houses, doing their laundry, having a life.

they show up for class in the morning looking nothing like they had crawled out of a coffin.
Why do we engage in the masochism that is a technical field?

I suppose it's because we understand the value of right answers. Sure, it is nice in my European History class to be able to bullshit my way through the revolutions of 1848, and come up with a crack-brained theory or two on societal influences of the Industrial Revolution, or turn in a Russian History paper I proclaimed to friends to be "my worst writing ever" and get the second-highest grade in the class. But there are situations in this world where something either works or it doesn't. Right or wrong. No bullshit allowed.

As a computer science major, I get a rush out of making a program perform properly. Maybe it's a value on having everything in its proper place (but why's my room dirty, then?). Our creative urges are expressed within an objective situation by using different means to solve a problem -- either that, or when we get done with our coding, we head over to the student center and play piano for a bit to blow off the stress.

Well, I was a literature major. While the mathmos were in the bar working out how many two beers plus two beers was I was ... well I was in the bar too, but I was arguing with my friends about whether Jay Gatsby was really the embodiment of the American Dream. Of course, the arguments went on forever, because there were no right answers.

No right answers meant night after night up late trying to decipher meaning in the obscure phrases of obscurer poets. It meant deciding what you thought the author was trying to say, and knowing that you had to come up with a damn good argument, because at least half the the people reading your thesis were going to disagree with your interpretation, and you had to convince them. It meant not only reading the texts, time after time after time, to make sure you'd squeezed out the last drop of significance, but also reading every piece of criticism you could get your hands on, just to make sure you weren't accused of plagiarising Bloggs' essay in "Minor poets of the 17th century" (1973).

No right answers meant you had to write to impress. You had to be thorough, you had to be eloquent, your text had to flow. Your vocabulary had to be erudite, your metaphors arresting, and your grammar and spelling had better be perfect.

You would never find a liberal arts major in a coffee-shop at four, because they'd be in their room, writing, revising, editing and writing again. Our laundry was only done because it could wash while we worked, and go in the dryer when we went to get our twenty-fourth cup of coffee. Bright-eyed? Maybe, but then again caffeine does that to you.

The girl you see crying in the corner at lunchtime? She might be a science major who has broken up with her boyfriend, but more likely she is a literature major, who has spent the last seventy-two hours writing a paper on "The psychological imperative for Ophelia's suicide" pouring her heart and soul into it, and, because there are no right answers, she still isn't sure of a good grade. She knows that however well she has done, however well supported her arguments, her professor can mark it down because they disagree, because they don't like the brand of paper she used, because they had PMS that morning or an argument with their wife last night. And she won't be able to argue, because there is no proof, one way or another.

I used to yearn for right answers. It's probably why I did my Masters in Computer Science.

And then you've got your Philosophy major; the worst of both worlds, perhaps? No right answers, true.. in fact, this is No Right Answers at its extreme, innit? On the other hand, you also have read and understand the writings of the Philosophers who came before you (who may or may not have been geniuses and prodigies, but at least had pretty complex ideas.) Sure, Philosophy may be all well and good (and the same goes for Literature, as Demeter pointed out,) if you just want to relax with a little Sartre or whatnot, but try reading, understanding and remembering (permanently, if you intend to do anything to do with philosophy after you're done with the degree you're working on) the writings of not only Sartre, Descartes, and Kant, but the likes of (difficult translations of) Foucault (still waiting for him to draw a conclusion,) Wittgenstein, Derrida, and worse.

I studied engineering. Most of us knew what score we deserved in the exams before they were even set, and mostly we were proved right.

None of my friends on the liberal arts courses could ever predict their own exam results. They had real stress before each end-of-year test. For us it was just the culmination of what we had done or had failed to do over the previous two or three terms. For them, each new essay or exam really was a voyage into the unknown.

In engineering we had a heavy timetable. Lectures covered 30 or more hours per week. Add on practical training in the workshop, extra design effort and lab work, and that was up to 34 or 35 hours before any kind of preparation or exercises.

When I first encountered people on the English and History courses, I was envious of their free time. I looked at their timetables and saw only 10 hours of lectures and seminars per week.

But when they described their workload, with essays, and seminars, reading lists and debates, I saw that it worked out about the same.

For me, the revelation was that on the arts side, the whole purpose of the course was to produce a theory or standpoint, and support it with evidence taken from the literature and then argue the point as persuasively as possible.

On the science side, we took the theories as gospel. We might derive them, or prove them once or twice in our training, just as an intellectual exercise. But the point of the course was to use these theories to develop a better understanding of the physical world around us. They were the foundations upon which we built our structures and ideas.

With each new concept we added to the hierarchical structure of our understanding. And as we added more layers of knowledge, we relied more heavily on the underlying foundations of that knowledge.

Those foundations became absolute truths, inviolable and unquestioned .

On the arts side, the whole point of the course was to teach people to find evidence to use as the basis of a powerful, persuasive presentation. It was incredible to us scientists that the arts students were encouraged to propose many different interpretations of the text, irrespective of the ‘truth' or otherwise of those propositions.

The arts teaches us very clearly that there is no absolute truth. The truth is defined by the person who argues most persuasively, or who most skilfully rebuts the opposing view.

Now, tell me which of these skills is more use in life?

As an engineering student, I worked alone, with my calculator and my drawing instruments, perfecting my orthographic projections and trigonometric calculus. Those liberal arts students spent their time arguing and talking and writing for the purpose of portraying love and beauty.

Which of these skills is more desirable in a friend?

The engineers hid their feelings behind their theories and axioms, exchanging symbols and equations, while the poets bared their souls and reached into their hearts to touch the essence of Byron and Donne.

Which of us learned more about our fellow humans?

I could do my work and then switch off. Once I had grasped the concept of those Boolean mappings, I could divert my thoughts to more frivolous things. They never could. They were completely consumed by this week's book. Struggling to grasp how early 20th century literature grew from the Victorian novel and how social and cultural patterns had changed and how those changes were expressed in words, images and subjects. Constantly thinking and arguing what the authors thought and what their words might have meant

They were trained to justify their point of view, no matter how counter-intuitive. They spoke powerfully, using techniques refined by writers and orators over the millennia to convey authority and wisdom. I solved my equations and two days later, the paper was returned with a percentage score that I had already guessed.

So we all hung out together, and talked and drank and dated and, years later, some of us still hang out together. We all learned a lot at university. I learned some equations and some fundamental constants. They learned some universal truths.

Sure, I am the one who programs their video recorders and sets up their computers and mends their broken stuff. They are the ones who entertain me with their stories of this film or that play. I might have been at the same movie, but I can't remember, or didn't notice those details, and I can't re-tell the story like they can. And yes, I have some skills that they don't have. I can strip away layers of complexity in an instant, while they struggle with irrelevant or conflicting details . I am good at doing things quickly and efficiently, while they want endlessly to discuss how it might be done.

Neither course was easier or more difficult, neither course prepared us for life any better or worse. Twenty years after we graduated, we all have colleagues and friends, and those colleagues and friends have very different backgrounds and education, yet, we can all do our jobs and live our lives well enough whether we studied arts, or sciences or simply learned at the University of life.

At a deeper level, however, the attitudes and knowledge-gathering skills we learned at college still have had a very profound impact on our thought patterns.

The sciences remain hierarchical. You can't properly understand top-level stuff like human cloning, without first doing that apprenticeship and learning about cell division, DNA, base pairs, monoclonal antibodies, and so on. And this is what makes the sciences a weird and wonderful world to many arts specialists.

By contrast, many scientists believe there are absolute truths in everything. That Shakespeare definitely meant such and such in that scene in The Tempest, for example.

The difficulty comes when something looks like science, but is not. Take human cloning. We know the science, but we are still struggling with the ethics and morals. So we are faced with scientists who are ill-equipped to analyse the ethical issues and ethicists who are ill-equipped to understand the scientific basis of the technology.

We need to find individuals who can cross the boundaries set out in The two cultures and use deterministic, scientific thinking where appropriate, but break out of that, and apply the less rigid thought patterns where that is appropriate. Those people are very rare indeed.

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