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March 9, 2004

Science Is for People of Middling Intelligence

I don't really mean the title of this post, but I needed a sufficient rib for the Trackback section of this indulgence in science-guy hauteur by Michael Williams.

Michael takes from an Eli Lehrer piece comparing the broad fields of humanities and science that "bright students can succeed in any field, and tend to move towards those that are more profitable." It may have to do with my being a humanities fella, but I took Lehrer's central point to be something quite different. Here's Lehrer:

Starting in high school, the best American students can look forward to a rich and challenging science curriculum supported by significant opportunities for research, paid summer jobs, and prestige.

High school students in the humanities can look forward to little of this. Even in the most privileged secondary schools the study of the humanities is of far poorer quality than the science instruction available at "second-rate" high schools. A close look at the curricula pursued by some of the country's best high-school students shows the great pressure they face to forsake the humanities for the sciences. ...

None of this is to say that the prep schools teach poorly, just that the upper-level syllabi I looked at usually required less reading than college courses—roughly 100 pages a week as compared with more than 200 at the college level. And even the best students cannot be sure that they will read Shakespeare and Milton when they are in high school. No wonder teachers see some of the best humanities students slip away. "The students who do the best in our courses also tend to do well in just about everything else," explains Steve McKibbon, who teaches English at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut. ...

But despite this all-too-common lack of academic seriousness, at least some evidence exists that the humanities are more "brainy" than the sciences. Study after study has shown that scores on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test correlate more closely with I.Q. than do scores on the math sections. "The verbal parts of the tests are more oriented towards the things that people have to do in life. They aren't coachable in the way that the math sections might be," says Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Lehrer's suggestion is that the humanities aren't treated with the same degree of academic rigor, and this factor, along with the appreciation that corresponds to greater rigor, push particularly bright students toward the sciences. It isn't that, as Michael concludes, "there are fewer people who can succeed in the sciences than who can succeed in the humanities." To the extent that Lehrer's analysis supports claims either way, the opposite would seem to be the case: fewer people can succeed in the humanities, but those people can also succeed in the sciences, so they go where the rewards seem to be.

Keeping within this narrow range of trends, a cause and effect of the draining of real, substantive talent from the humanities has been its politicization, and an effect of that has been the increasing acceptability of mediocrity, even vacuity, as long as it returns the correct echo. Michael doesn't see why Lehrer would advocate policies that would remedy the problem — which leads to the larger topic about the extent to which deficiencies in the humanities have harmed our society. By the same token, however, he also doesn't see that the difference in standards for success between the two fields doesn't indicate a higher ceiling for the sciences, but rather an artificially low ladder for the humanities.

One would think that a man of the sciences would have striven to ensure that he was comparing like to like. That a substantial portion of the population can string words into sentences doesn't mean that the same proportion has a notable aptitude in the humanities. That's the basic skill — a bit like arithmetic. The lesson isn't that the humanities are easier; it's that we're dropping the ball in encouraging students past that basic level.

Michael makes another Nobel to AmLit 101 comparison with respect to research:

Of course, assisting in research is more problematic for students in the humanities. "I can’t really send an undergraduate to the library to read an article because he might get something totally different out of it than I would," says Carol Kaske, an English professor at Cornell. "We can’t do undergraduate research the same way they can in the sciences."

Going to the library to read an article isn't real research. Real research is what you do after you know all the background information. Real research is the process of discovering or creating something new. Real research is standing on the shoulders of giants, not just looking around for giants. Going to the library (or the internet) can be part of it, but I get the feeling that what passes for research in most humanities departments is wholly different from scientific research.

Michael's comparing "standing on the shoulders of giants" with bringing a cow to the market for mom. Lifetime achievement with the low-level research that an undergraduate might do for a professor. To be sure, Prof. Kaske is pointing, in the included extract from Lehrer's piece, to an inherent difference between the areas of study, but it's structural, not qualitative. As Michael admits, reading material "can be part of" scientific research, but similarly, it isn't the sum total of research in the humanities.

An academic in the sciences could assign an undergraduate to go through an article and highlight any instances of a word, for example. Or he could instruct the student to write down the results of a particular experiment described in a text. The same level of research in the humanities isn't so defined. For a lengthy paper about Moby Dick, I read through a collection of Herman Melville's personal letters. Had I an assistant, I might have been tempted to hand him the tome with the instructions to write down any mentions of the novel, but then I would have missed those statements of Melville's that were much more relevant thematically — offhand characterizations of spiritual feelings, for example — because they weren't relevant explicitly.

Now, Michael might say that, even if he didn't make the connection clear, my larger Moby Dick project was what he meant by "just looking around for giants." Science, properly speaking, isn't researching the biographies of other scientists, and the full expression of science isn't the analysis of other scientists' experimental methods. Here again, however, he's comparing incorrect degrees of research that correspond only because our society has so hobbled the humanities.

Scientists, too, must look around for giants and feel around for their shoulders before they can pull themselves up to those lofty heights. The great composers studied the works of their predecessors so that they could express their own unique musical conclusions on the most firm foundation. Just so, those who master a discipline within the humanities can advance knowledge either by moving through the lines of forerunners' work or by tying those lines together in ways that haven't yet been tried.

Given their nature, the humanities involve more, and often more subtle, reading. They require broader understanding. They deal in variables that resist compartmentalization. Moreover, the conclusions reached thereby will often advance or supercede more-technical knowledge, either by suggesting new approaches or discerning dangers of advancing too far in a particular direction. It is here that society ought to find its greatest motivation for spreading out its best and brightest across the intellectual landscape.

Posted by Justin Katz at March 9, 2004 7:39 PM
Culture