A tale of two Berkeleys

Computer-Library_Michael-Drummond
Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

The friction between science and the humanities traces back to the inception of Western academia. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics is often discussed with awe, while jokes are told sardonically in bars and student lounges about the flimsy humanities degree. People engage in friendly and not-so-friendly debates over notions of superiority and pragmatism, both on and off Yik Yak.

It’s no secret that the pulse of an esteemed institution such as UC Berkeley is affected by these diametrically opposed areas of study. What is less known, however, is the complex dynamic between the two, entrenched beneath a surface of antagonism.

On a campus where computer science majors rule the roost and the English major seems far from marketable, it’s tempting to distill the conversation to a polar reduction. Because of the emphasized split in the job market, the choice between science and the humanities is presented as a one-or-the-other idea — that is, most students pick a side early on and stick with it.

“By my parent’s reasoning, I will probably read lots of books on my own without wasting tuition money that might be better spent learning a more marketable skill, like programming, that I wouldn’t be able to learn by myself,” said Sharada Narayan, a senior public health major focusing on infectious diseases.

Narayan is one of many students who take this stance when opting for the rigor of a science education. I myself can empathize with the hesitation and uncertainty surrounding pursuing a humanities degree. I took the plunge from the deep end my third year of community college, switching my major from biology to English. I decided I wanted to go into writing, as the idea of a life spent analyzing data and doing experiments didn’t appeal to me as much as having the creative freedom to write about a span of topics.

But this shift was scary. The integration of STEM and the humanities within a career never occurred to me because I was so focused on their differences. I had always associated English with teaching — a world far away from the calculations and rules of biology. I didn’t realize until later that an English degree would allow me to write about practically anything, which could include science.

I am a shape-shifter between two distinct academic worlds, and my experience has taught me that turning toward one thing doesn’t necessarily mean you’re turning your back on the other. No one has one, singular interest, so why let education be singular?

Here at UC Berkeley, our broad, liberal arts education quickly becomes one-note. As students specialize, they forget the other side of the academic world, deeming it irrelevant. Myths such as the left brain and right brain feed the tension, and a campus culture where integration sometimes seems impossible sustains it. Those who want to pursue multiple interests that seem at odds are not only discouraged to do so by their peers, but often have to justify their decisions. Career possibilities within the humanities are especially difficult to communicate, and some have a hard time believing they even exist.

Cue the skeptical remarks that are all too familiar to humanities majors.

“Some common negative responses for art include, ‘How do you plan on getting a job?’ or ‘That’s not very useful’,” said Lynn Tsai, a junior double majoring in computer science and art practice.

“When I tell people that I’m an English major, they tend to assume that I want to teach elementary school, as if that’s the only relevant job for my discipline,” said senior Miranda Wagner.

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Do things have to be this way? Is this the beginning of a long-fated decline of the humanities into antiquity? Or can science and the humanities not only coexist but also enhance each other? Despite the common rhetoric among its students, UC Berkeley has a massive opportunity to better integrate the humanities with the sciences — it’s just a matter of reframing the discussion.

“I think ‘interdisciplinary’ is sort of a word that you need once you’ve divided something up the wrong way,” said Greg Niemeyer, a professor of art practice who views STEM and humanities as one nebulous discipline. “So I think that’s a big challenge. I think we could do a lot of good by addressing that properly.”

According to Niemeyer, assumptions about cultural values keep STEM and the humanities divided.

David Presti, a professor of molecular and cell biology, insists on a “cross-fertilization” that should occur from both ends.

“Our scientific worldview gives us a particular slice, particular explanatory framework of experience,” Presti said. ”But it’s not the whole story. We have to look beyond our current limited ways for explaining and understanding things.”

Kevin Padian, a professor of integrative biology, maintains that the humanities have concrete value outside the frame of a career.

“I think the humanities courses have the potential to develop you personally (and) your intellectual compass in a way that a lot of STEM training that is narrowly directed can’t do,” he said.

Still, a divide persists. An informal survey of some 200 students revealed that 40 percent felt STEM majors shouldn’t be required to take humanities classes.

“As for STEM majors, I often hear, ‘I don’t have time to study abroad’ or ‘Why do we have to take an American cultures class? It has nothing to do with my major,’ ” said Cypress Lynx, a senior in molecular environmental biology and nutritional science. “There’s this mentality nowadays, particularly among STEM majors, that languages and humanities in general aren’t practical. I think this is farthest from the truth. Having a global point of view is essential to the sciences, as we’re not all cooped up in our labs all our lives.”

The problem begins with minimal exposure on both sides. A two-course reading and composition requirement is expected of all UC Berkeley undergraduates, regardless of major. Students in the College of Letters and Science are required to take seven breadth courses, five of which fall under the humanities umbrella: arts and literature, historical studies, international studies, philosophy and values, and social and behavioral sciences. But once these classes are completed, students often abandon any pursuit of interdisciplinary study. It just simply doesn’t seem relevant.

There are models for greater engagement across the aisle. UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas courses within the College of Letters and Science were implemented specifically to merge vastly different departments. It’s a program that encourages teams of faculty to tackle conceptually intricate topics that defy the confines of one specific discipline. Courses feature unique topics such as neuroscience and Buddhism and “Sense and Sensibility and Science,” which examines philosophy and social science.

The College of Letters and Science’s director of academic planning, Alix Schwartz, heads the program, which she calls unique to UC Berkeley. According to her, one of the program’s benefits is that it’s a learning experience not only for students but for professors as well.

“(Students are) used to seeing professors as being the authority in the room, but suddenly, the professors on their level on some things,” Schwartz said. “(The professors are) learning so much — different content and different methodologies — and they’re also learning different pedagogies.”

The Big Ideas courses serve as an example of how a working relationship between STEM and the humanities is possible and fruitful. Interdisciplinary programs are a solution for those who feel as though they have to decide between two disciplines that seem to have nothing in common.

Making visible this extensive gray area that exists beneath the polarized surface of UC Berkeley academics is necessary to move beyond unnecessary tension and derision and on to the important work of making the humanities relevant again.

This starts with changing the way we view curriculum, and the Big Ideas program can’t bear this burden alone. Most of the interviewed faculty agreed that making Big Ideas-style classes a requirement would delegitimize the program and that the courses should be reserved for those who genuinely want to learn. According to Schwartz, the style of the class also matters. For Big Ideas courses to make the most impact, they have to be taught on a smaller scale to maintain the quality of the classes. Exchange among the professors and students shapes the ideas being generated. In a crowded lecture hall, not everyone would get a chance to join the discussion.

What’s established here at UC Berkeley seems to be a promising start for a model that should be encouraged. The Big Ideas program is able to offer only a few courses per semester. Some classes even require an application process to ensure that a variety of majors are represented. The program can accommodate only a small group of students per semester. A wider net needs to be cast.

Efforts toward better integration must operate on three levels: student, professor and administration. Students are the ones who establish the social climate, but this change is up to individual discretion. Professors can modify their teaching styles based on an interdisciplinary approach, but their influence extends only to their students. The administration has the opportunity to set the tone for the campus.

Better integrating the humanities and sciences at UC Berkeley is not just an English major’s pipe dream — it’s a necessity. In an academic climate that often touts employability over knowledge, providing a space to overcome these boundaries and engage deeply with substantive topics is necessary to keeping the liberal education alive. A college education can and should not be reduced to the study of one subject, one side of the brain and one way of seeing the world. A physicist has everything to gain from reading Descartes. An English major would be well advised to pick up a computer science class. This integration stands at the heart of the mission of a university education.