Closing the Gap Between Humanities and Science


(Photo by Brent Uberty)

(Photo by Brent Uberty)
(Photo by Brent Uberty)

There’s a showdown on campus between the humanities and the sciences.
Few programs at the U manage to close this gap with studies actively integrating technology, engineering and mathematics with the liberal arts. Richard Ingebretsen, associate dean for student affairs in the College of Science, said he thinks the gap is a natural result of knowledge accumulation that requires more specialization in different fields of studies.
“We just naturally differentiate between subjects, whether they’re the humanities or whether they’re the hard sciences. It’s the natural evolution of knowledge,” he said. “Chemists don’t know anything about English, and English scholars don’t know anything about the social sciences.”
Namita Murthy, a sophomore in psychology and sociology, said while she understands this split may hinder students’ appreciation for other majors, that “it’s a good thing that education has narrowed because now people can do what they want and don’t have to take classes they don’t care about.”
The U’s general education requirements are one way the U tries to keep students interested in more than one field of study. According to the U’s philosophy on general requirements, which can be found on the University College’s website, general education courses are supposed to create an opportunity for students to experience subjects they wouldn’t otherwise come in contact with. These requirements follow guidelines put into place by the Utah System of Higher Education to ensure a well-rounded education.
But among the required fine arts, humanities, writing and two quantitative reasoning credits, there aren’t many fields of study that bring the sciences and the humanities together.
“I hate generals,” Murthy said. “I suppose they’re helpful if you’re not sure where you’re going, but some of them just felt like a waste of a credit.”
Ingebretsen said students may feel this way about classes unrelated to their major because they’re either unfamiliar with the subjects and it intimidates them, or they’re bored because the classes don’t appeal to their interests. He said the College of Science is offering “user-friendly” courses, such as Physics of the Human Body and the Chemistry of Cooking, to draw in all types of students.
“I think making the sciences more relatable is a way that can bridge the gap that exists between the sciences and the humanities,” Ingebretsen said. “It’s a real issue, though.”
Frank Brown, dean of the College of Mines & Earth Sciences, said one of the biggest factors for why humanities students don’t take more science courses is because of the perceived difficulty and the math-heavy introductory courses.
“There’s a place for explaining geology without having a bunch of equations because you can understand it,” Brown said. “It’s simple stuff. You see it every day.”
He said it’s not just one-sided, though. Ingebretsen thinks there also needs to be a push to get science students involved with the humanities, especially in writing and languages.
“We don’t push learning a second language any longer. And I think that’s a mistake,” he said. “These days, there are two separate worlds, but there didn’t used to be … A lot of science papers today don’t make for great reading, but those old geology papers — some of them are delightful.”
Ingebretsen said this separation of the sciences and the humanities is fairly modern.
“Einstein’s idea was to unify fields and ideas together to become one rather than to separate them,” he said. “While knowledge tends to separate, there are forward-thinking people all over who are trying to unify it. Historically, the great thinkers, like Newton, bridged all disciplines, and we need to bridge more today.”
The gap does seem to be growing, though, with more newly enrolled U students going into colleges associated with STEM while enrollment in the liberal arts has stayed relatively the same over the past decade.
According to the U’s Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis, in the fall of 2005, the fine arts and humanities had a little more than 4,000 students total, while the STEM-affiliated colleges had a collective total of less than 4,000. Fast forward eight years, and science dominates. In the fall of 2013, there were around 4,000 students in the humanities and the liberal arts, while STEM colleges grew to about 5,600 students.
Brown said he thinks the reason for this increase in students applying for STEM degrees is a secure job market after college.
“I think students are looking at that more than they used to,” he said. “Starting pays are really good, especially when you graduate from a master’s program.”
There are efforts at the U to create a stronger overlap of the sciences and humanities. The U’s Honors College aims to provide “intellectually curious, motivated students the best of two worlds — an intimate liberal arts and sciences education.” The college works to bring students of different disciplines into the same classrooms.
A program open to all students on campus is the sustainability certificate, available through the Environmental and Sustainability Study Program. This certificate emphasizes caring about the environment and learning to think about it critically, but it also offers courses from different disciplines across campus. The program offers philosophy courses like Environmental Ethics, English courses like Environmental Literature and biology courses like Urban Ecology.
Ingebretsen appreciates these efforts of integration between the humanities and the sciences already taking place at the U.
“There are no drawbacks to knowledge. There is simply no reason you shouldn’t study the philosophies of the great thinkers as well as the great physicists,” he said. “The more we unify thinking and education across campus, the stronger we will be.”
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