A core problem: science vs. humanities

By Phoebe Maltz

We have Hum, not “poetry for physicists”; why, then, do we have “physics for poets”?

There’s a flaw in the Core; a tear in the otherwise flawless ozone layer that surrounds the College. I first noticed it a couple years ago, but was reminded of it today while sitting in Phy Sci, attempting to re-learn scientific notation—a concept I found simple when first introduced but that, now that my brain is filled with French literature and concerns about what to do after graduation, seems incredibly difficult. The problem with the Core is that, in a sense, all are not equal before its law. Humanities majors and non-humanities-majors alike take the same Hum classes. Same goes for Soc and Civ. In math and in foreign languages, incoming students begin at different levels, and those with backgrounds in math or in a language might be more likely to major in those areas, but there’s no outright division between majors and non-majors in most of the intro classes. Not so for the sciences.

Unless you’ve placed out of them, you will, at some point in your time at the College, have to take some sort of biology and some sort of physical science. You will have two options—a “real” science class, one that permits you to go onto a science major, or a wimpy one, in which your classmates will be reading novels during class.

The two main tracks in the sciences—classes that count for majors and classes that only count for the Core—are a terrible idea. Whereas Hum and Soc professors know that their classes include both those looking to study something in the field and those who want to get their Marx and Hegel out of the way as soon as possible, Core Bio, Phy Sci, and Nat Sci professors know they’re preaching to the unconvertible. You can see the resignation on their faces when they introduce the subject, trying to convey not that it’s interesting or challenging, but that it’s not so scary. Hum and Soc profs, on the other hand, are free to look at the first- and second-years in their classes as potential recruits. They have every reason to get excited about the subject, whereas Core science profs are doing a good job if they’ve succeeded in making the course palatable.

Another problem with the two-pronged science Core is that it reflects what I believe is a misguided notion about the difference between the sciences and the humanities or social sciences. Science is treated like a calling—either you were born knowing you wanted to measure velocity and dissect stuff or you weren’t. Otherwise, how could all incoming students, most of whose only pre-college exposure to science was in high school, know whether to take science classes for majors or ones for non-majors? Also related, it’s assumed that either you were born capable of doing real science or you weren’t, which is why special, un-intimidating science classes exist for poets while there’s no watered-down Hum class for the non-verbal science types. The creators of the current Core take it as a given that all students will be reasonably challenged by the humanities and social science core classes, yet there seems to be this fear of putting people into science classes that are either too easy or too hard.

Now, to be fair, no one forces the non-majors to take the cop-out science classes (which can, in their own way, be work-intensive and difficult). Nothing technically stopped me from signing up for a higher-numbered course. But each non-major knows that he would likely be one of few, if any, non-majors in a “real” science class, and that any sympathy a professor has for a poet curious about physics isn’t going to guarantee a passing grade.

At a perfect University of Chicago, there would be introductory, Core science classes that were to high-level ones what Hum is to an upper-level Comparative Literature class, what Soc is to upper-level Political Science classes, etc. Such a class wouldn’t count toward any science major, just as Hum doesn’t count as an English class. Professors in the sciences would finally be able to reach out to even those students who, perhaps just because they had dippy science teachers in high school, are convinced that science just isn’t their thing.