Sunday, December 01, 2002

From the message board:
As far as a "soft non-rigorous field" is concerned, it is what you make of it. A lot of us with liberal arts degrees encounter prejudice for our academic paths. Those who put us down seem to forget that in obtaining a degree we saw a process through from start to finish. As for my university, if you went in thinking that majoring in a liberal arts discipline was going to be a cakewalk, well, you had another thing coming. Whatever you're studying, it should be something meaningful to you. Apply yourself to it, and you're better prepared for the real world. Anne
Of course Anne is right to some extent. In absolute terms-there are more high IQ english and political science graduates than physics or math graduates, but that is because there are so many more of the former than latter. Let me be honest and say in my experience the penalty for stupidity at most colleges is far higher in the sciences than it is in the non-sciences-with math being a crucial factor. Someone with moderate intelligence and perseverance might shine in english, and someone with great intelligence and a mediocre work ethic might be able to pass with flying colors in political science, but when you take a math class (aside from a few seminal geniuses like godless capitalist :)), brilliance is no bar to failure lacking some effort and concentration is no guarantee of success lacking aptitude. Even within the sciences there is a progression. In biology one could shape a course load that was "softer" (more field ecology and zoology, less mathematical population genetics and molecular biology) and required less effort. That doesn't mean that everyone in the soft fields were less intelligent-I know people who focused on ecology that were brilliant, but there were also many who could get by on cramming or regurgitating information from their notes (to minimize effort and maximize GPA, pre-meds tended to do general science, stacking up on 300-level courses). As one goes up the hierarchy of rigor-from ethology and zoology to molecular biology, than biochemistry, than organic chemistry, through physical chemistry and experimental physics and finally to theoretical physics and mathematics, there is less and less room for laziness and compensation via innate intelligence without preparation (you can quibble about details but I think most people with a science background will agree there is a spectrum-the only thing that mitigates physical scientists from sniffing too much at life scientists is that the latter fields are very "hot" now). Though I received my degree in biochemistry, I also took a minor in history. I can tell you there was one 300-level class where I showed up 4 times, on the first day, on the two mid-terms, and for the final. The professor didn't mind, because he knew I could master the material through some reading. There weren't any problem sets or lab-work that kept me on my toes every week. And all the 400-level seminars that I took were composed by and large of students that didn't fear an F (the professor would grant an "incomplete"-something initially alien to me) and saw no reason to do any of the reading (the clincher for me was when I was the only one who read a small book titled Our European Ancestors) [1]. By contrast, by the time I was doing physical chemistry or biochemistry coursework, there were few if any "slackers" left-getting a C (especially in lab-work) required too much effort (you had to at least show up for every lab), and judging by the fact that during the year, the classes would shrink by 1/3 every trimester, many people simply couldn't handle it. Anyway, that's my case. I don't doubt there are many people far more intelligent than me with a liberal arts degree. But there is a difference in the disciplines in that with a library card and some perseverance I have been able to accumulate enough data that I feel comfortable talking about history, philosophy or political issues without feeling at a disadvantage to those with "broader" educational backgrounds than I. On the other hand, few if any liberal arts majors have the courage to discuss technical issues-even those far outside my core field of knowledge such as physics, as I've taken college level physics and they haven't [2]. The easiest way for liberal arts degree holders to earn some respect is if their professors would get balls and fail the bottom-half (2/3?) of their classes for writing derivative and unorginal papers out of their asses. [1] If knowing a language had been a prerequisite in any of the seminars I'd taken-it would have been a different case, but I was able to cherry pick those that didn't require mastery of German (I took almost all of my history courses on Germany). On the other hand, I couldn't cherry pick as much when I did biochemistry, biology, organic chemistry, math and physics were strict prereqs for many of upper-division courses. [2] One thing I've always found amusing is how science people can con non-science people into thinking they know more than they do. Usually it happens when I see someone who works in a biochemistry laboratory trying to talk about biodiversity or a physical chemistry graduate student talking about the pharmaceutical industry applications of chemical X. Of course today the sciences are often so incestuous (Harvard's biology department is split between molecular and non-molecular) that the typical chemistry graduate can't speak on issues like biodiversity with much more authority than a non-science person could, and an ecology major might be hard-pressed to think back to freshmen chemistry and figure out what exactly is going on when a flame lights up, though the cute folk studies girl will want an explanation and so he bluffs his way through it.

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