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The Name Game

Absurdly titled math and science cores condescend to humanities students

By Adrienne Y. Lee

When I shop for science and math cores, it always feels like I’m back in elementary school. I scan the course catalogue and ponder what my parents might say when I tell them I’m taking “Science of the Physical Universe 22: The Unity of Science: From the Big Bang to the Brontosaurus” or “Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning 14: Fat Chance.”

“Is that a real class?” I imagine they’d ask.

These ridiculously named classes are a manifestation of a general bias within the Core and General Education programs that all students who choose to concentrate in the humanities are both incapable of doing math and science and completely uninterested in those subjects.

There’s nothing particularly objectionable about science and math cores being easier than departmental offerings. When I’m trying to get through 600 pages of reading a week and write five papers a semester, I simply don’t have time for a four-hour chemistry lab and lengthy lab reports. However, having taken science courses throughout grade school, I have enough science background to know that DNA contains genetic information and that yes, everything is made of atoms. These ideas really shouldn’t be new to anyone at this school, and it baffles me how often they are presented as such.

Humanities concentrators come from a range of science backgrounds, so it is appropriate to review certain science and math concepts for those of us who haven’t touched a calculator in a few years. But reminding humanities students that everything is made of atoms is rather like reminding science students that America used to be a set of British colonies.

It seems odd that as a history concentrator, I would easily consider taking a Societies of the World or History B class to satisfy a concentration requirement, whereas none of my science-concentrator friends has ever considered taking a Core or Gen Ed to satisfy theirs. I think the disconnect has less to do with the dumbed-down science of many of these courses, and more to do with the dumbed-down attitude that these courses have toward their students.

A course that could easily have been called “Concepts and Case Studies in Biology” gets dubbed “The Molecules of Life” instead, as if non-science students couldn’t possibly find the actual science intrinsically interesting. The material explored in some of these Cores or Gen Eds might very well be worthwhile and engaging, but nothing suggests “joke class” more than a nebulous moniker.

Science and math concentrators often find humanities courses just as challenging or uninteresting, but at least they get treated like adults. “Western Ascendancy: The Mainsprings of Global Power from 1600 to the Present” sounds just as respectable and intellectually fulfilling as anything I could find in the history department. It isn’t called “The West: Why We’re Awesome” just to attract the attention non-history buffs.

Even though I’ve done my fair share of complaining about the Core, I still believe it is valuable for students to venture outside of their academic corners and acquire knowledge in other important fields. All I’m asking for is a Core that is interesting, manageable, and doesn’t treat me like I’m five years old.

If you find a Science A that meets those requirements, let me know.

Adrienne Y. Lee ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.

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