Bridging the Gap between the Hard Sciences and the Humanities

NY Times Article References New BU Program

Two professors at Binghamton University, Dr. David Sloan Wilson of the Biology department and Dr. Leslie Heywood of the English department, are currently developing a joint Science and Humanitities program called the "New Humanities Initiative". This program will add a rubric to BU courses which expose students to "basic scientific tools like statistics and experimental design and to liberal arts staples like the importance of analyzing specific texts or documents closely, identifying their animating ideas and comparing them with the texts of other times or other immortal minds". The goal of the program is for students and scholars to be exposed to both qualitative and quantitative research, and to learn how the approaches compliment one another.

Both Dr. Wilson and Dr. Heywood have already seen positive results from this approach in their own research. Dr. Heywood began examining how humans evolved along side wolves over time; her evidence was based on how writers wrote about wolves at different time periods. She expanded on this research by working with Dr. Wilson, examining how people reacted to different images of wolves in a survey. Their findings suggest that individuals may have conflicted feelings about wolves. On the one hand, humans have had a competiting predatory relationship with wolves. On the other, people may also relate to them given that wolves also have tight social connections and are very nurturing to their young.

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

8 Replies to “Bridging the Gap between the Hard Sciences and the Humanities”

  1. While both the hard sciences and liberal arts have their own short-comings, the “basic illiteracy” of the two fields are hardly symmetrical. The humanities do not carry their weight in educating students as much as natural sciences do, which is a shame, because the skills of reasoning and critical analysis that humanities professors purport to endow their students with are the qualities that society is most desperately in need of. If the humanities contributed to the world as much as natural sciences have (in the form of medicine, technology and understanding of the universe), Americans would not have elected twice a man they want to have a beer with.
    In fact, I might even go as far as to say that English courses in particular actually do harm to society. Other than the obvious damage of diverting young minds away from learning the skills necessary to develop technology (or something similarly useful), English courses encourage students to see patterns even in instances where none exist. For example, in the article, Dr. Heywood cited the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf mother of Romulus and Remus as evidence of humans’ conflicted view of wolves; this is poor evidence for her observation of human attitudes toward wolves (which isn’t even very profound or difficult to explain to begin with) because the cultures of imperial Rome and the various cultures that told the story of Little Red are sufficiently different so as to be unrelated in their attitudes of lupines. Thus, we can argue that Dr. Heywood is comparing apples to oranges, though her field often encourages such bogus comparisons. The reality of the world is that there is a lot of randomness, especially in human cultures, but many English courses make it their business to teach students to see non-existent meanings and patterns in what is really mere chaos.
    Not all liberal arts courses are equally useless; some of them can be downright educational! I’m a poli-sci major myself and I feel that most of what I’ve learned so far has given me an improved ability to evaluate govermental institutions, political philosophies, current events and basically distinguish noise from the things that matter.
    Most of my fellow poli-sci students are still pretty dumb, so there must be something wrong in the way that its taught, but still, I think it’s taught me both the qualitative and quantitative skills that people complain are mutually exclusive.
    In summation, English courses in particular are useless and a drain on society’s resources. Critical thinking, art appreciation, and everything else that English courses are supposed to impart, while essential, do not actually come from English courses. We can only speculate how those skills are developed, but they sure as hell are not being fostered by the assembly line mentality of syllabi and the stiffs in the Department of Education.
    English courses should be scrapped.

  2. David, I think there is inherent value to society in Shakespeare. And Joyce. And Milton. I think there is something about being “human” that the sciences cannot tell us. Perhaps it has something to do with experiencing the world, rather than just studying it through the scientific method. At the same time the sciences have inflicted some terrible ills on society: eugenics, the atomic bomb, germ warfare.
    Now, I’m generally an ally in the sciences, David. But you overstate your case, to a degree that warrants reprimand. For example: “If the humanities contributed to the world as much as natural sciences have (in the form of medicine, technology and understanding of the universe), Americans would not have elected twice a man they want to have a beer with.” Besides the fact that you suffer from the same fault you see in Dr. Heywood’s work (comparing apples to oranges), you posit what might be read as a causal link between study of the humanities and conservatism. A gut reaction leads me to think that a larger proportion of humanities scholars are liberal (quite radically so), more so than natural science scholars. If true, more natural science scholars likely voted for Bush than those in the humanities.
    Criticism is due to the humanities, for sure. But for crap’s sake, go pick up Emmerson and Whitman for a change in your narrow perspective.

  3. Hold on, now, Geoff.
    Two points:
    1. I wasn’t positing a link between conservativism and the humanities. I was suggesting that if humanities courses were effective, irrationality, such as voting for George Bush (or any other person) on the basis of some irrelevant character trait, would be less widespread.
    2. Why exactly should I read Emmerson or Whitman? If you’re suggesting that I don’t appreciate literature, you would be wrong. I prefer Vonnegut, Twain, Dumas and Shakespeare, but the point is, I enjoy them on my own time.
    Basically, what I am strongly opposed to is the notion that English majors are better equipped than others to appreciate art and life – that they are capable of “qualitative” analysis while the scientific minds are not. Maybe science can’t tell what being “human” is about (maybe it can), but the point is that appreciation of beauty is attained through a personal journey and it isn’t dictated to you by an instructor.

  4. I have to thank the English courses I took as an undergrad in helping me analyze what I read every day, actually. Unlike at Binghamton University, undergraduates at my alma mater are required to take two composition courses and at least one upper level literature course. Most of the students in those classes did not want to be there, so I’m sure that affected what they took away from it. From what I understand of undergraduate education at Binghamton University, composition and writing credits can be fulfilled outside the English Department, and I’m not sure if any interaction with the English Department is ever required (correct me if I’m wrong on that). This system, as I see it, can lead to a couple interesting results: first, undergraduates like yourself who clearly have no interest in English literature are never exposed to it in a meaningful way, thus cementing their distaste for it; second, the English Department then can specialize in what its members have interest in, rather than spending time on the basics of imparting its skills (yes, skills) on students. This second point is not bad in and of itself–and any department which is freed from the need to educate those who are uninterested in its material would likely be grateful for such a system–but it means that you are being taught these skills by those who don’t specialize in them. As a TA and instructor, I have learned that without these basic composition courses under their belts, there is only so much I can do in a political science course to educate students on effective writing and argumentation. These are things better left, I feel, to those who specifically focus their work on the very act of writing and understanding the written word. Again, as an undergraduate, I had two full semesters of English composition. Some students are just naturally good writers and so maybe two semesters is overkill; some students just don’t pick up the skills of writing, analysis, logic, and argumentation, and maybe two semesters aren’t enough or aren’t effective. For the vast majority of students, however, I think that forcing them to take even a composition class or two (there is more reading than writing, even in composition classes, to be sure) is helpful to them for most or all of the remaining courses they take in college–especially since they might not take these courses otherwise. Now, I certainly don’t know how many college-level English courses you have taken, David, but it strikes me that your attitudes are very similar to the way mine were upon entering college–before I took these courses. I was never a fan of literary analysis, but I see value in undergraduate English courses.
    As a side note, you are probably aware that undergraduates who choose to pursue a law degree typically come in as former Political Science and English majors. It’s also worth noting that Political Science majors who intend to pursue a law degree are possibly pulling different things out of their classes than are those who intend to pursue an academic career, or some other kind of career. I don’t know which of those pursuits you are interested in, perhaps at least some portion of those students you think are dumb are just in it for different reasons. Also, it’s laughable to expect that every political science major leaves college with a perfect understanding of the field and its material. Effective teaching can help to skew that expected normal distribution of students’ understanding, but effective teaching also accounts for the divergent interests of the students in the class.)
    Finally, there are a couple of things that I urge you to remember when you dismiss entire academic departments with a rather sophomoric zeal. First, fiction is not the only type of written work taught and analyzed in English courses, so you’re in luck if fiction just isn’t your thing. Second, all writing–in every discipline–must communicate an interesting story if it is to be effective. I do mean “story” in a loose sense, not that effective piece of writing must have interesting characters and a novel plot. Ask any political scientist, though, about effective writing in our discipline, and he or she will explain that a clear and interesting story makes an article worth reading–even the most fascinating statistical findings in the world must be communicated convincingly. It’s easier to tell those stories when you’ve read plenty of them and understand why they’re effective.

  5. OK, David. I’m holding.
    1) I misread your point, then. Still, I’m unclear why you think the ineffectiveness of the Humanities is evidenced in voting behavior. Even more, you have yet to prove there is no change in voting behavior pre and post enrollment in Humanities/English classes (and not in science classes). Not directly on point, but interesting and germane to this blog is the following post with data from the NES on education and party ID:
    And also here:
    Does it seem to be the case that we have been getting more conservative? Does this track the growing percentage of college educated voters?
    I don’t have a concrete answer to that. But I really like the idea of having data to back our assertions. 😛
    2) I chose Emerson and Whitman as representatives of the Transcendentalist movement. Wikipedia’s entry is here:
    I think the reasons why I cited them are pretty clear.
    I’m glad you enjoy literature, but that wasn’t my point at all. In fact, I love Vonnegut, Dumas, and Twain as well. And Foster Wallace, Delillo, Bocaccio, Alighieri, … But I think I love them in part because I had wonderful instructors who walked me through/introduced me to their greatness. I could never get through Ulysses on my own. Even more, I think studying these works in a class broadens the perspectives that are brought to the work, and thereby multiplies my enjoyment.
    Your final para: “Basically, what I am strongly opposed to is the notion that English majors are better equipped than others to appreciate art and life – that they are capable of “qualitative” analysis while the scientific minds are not. Maybe science can’t tell what being “human” is about (maybe it can), but the point is that appreciation of beauty is attained through a personal journey and it isn’t dictated to you by an instructor.”
    If English majors are making this claim, then I join you in riposte. This is the most lucid articulation of your point yet. Nonetheless, I think it is a strawman.
    Let me clarify one more point. You comment: “Not all liberal arts courses are equally useless; some of them can be downright educational!”
    Wikipedia, citing Encyclopedia Britanica, defines Liberal Arts as: “college or university curriculum aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing intellectual capacities, in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical curriculum.”
    I think that sounds about right. But I want to stress the idea that liberal arts is a curriculum, not a single course or even a department. More broadly, it might be defined as an educational philosophy with this central tenet: that the best minds are cultivated by a broad-based education. This seems right in line with what Dr. Wilson and Dr. Heywood are trying to do.
    Question: did you mean Humanities rather than liberal arts? If so, you misplace Political Science (at least insofar as is taught and practiced in our department) in the wrong academic classification. Social Sciences are generally considered separate from the Humanities because of the use of the Scientific Method. Granted, this is more evident in the graduate program than in the undergraduate classes, but the emphasis on positivism is still there despite the inadequate undergraduate training in empirics.

  6. Cynthia, I wonder if you have any thoughts on this:
    I read your post (it is excellent), and it got me thinking about the role traditionally held by departments of Rhetoric. My question (one that I haven’t found an answer to yet): Should Rhetoric and English be separated into two different departments? If so, how would this change the Liberal Arts curriculum? If not, how do we spare English departments the horror of accusations like David’s? Even if you’ve a distaste for literary criticism, the basics of composition are essential to all scholars.

  7. I’m not really sure where I think is the appropriate level of separation between rhetoric and literature, Geoff. I think most departments have separate concentrations for majors, if not completely separate departments. But I do like the idea of making sure that undergraduates get acquainted with areas they might not ordinarily be interested through more specific requirements. Not that everyone who takes an English class is going to become an English minor, but this not only creates demand for the basic classes in each department, but assures some kind of standard of achievement across the college.
    My ideal undergraduate experience would probably one of those true liberal arts ones: no departments, no grades, everything’s interdisciplinary, etc. In such an environment, the differences between rhetoric, analysis, and literature would be immaterial. In fact, I almost ended up at one of those types of colleges for my undergraduate education, but went to a large public university with many distinct departments instead. I think that dichotomy demonstrates my indecision on the matter of specialization and compartmentalization versus a perfectly rounded, interdisciplinary education.

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