When I first came to Williams, I planned on double-majoring in anthropology and Russian. In two short years I switched majors to anthropology and physics and then to just physics. Talking with students in many different majors both inside and outside the classroom, I’ve noticed a theme: There are tensions between students studying science and those focusing on the arts and humanities, as well as between students studying different sciences. Discussions that bring up scientific, mathematical or technical topics are met with awkward silence, and the subject gets changed as soon as possible.
This tension between students is caused by differences in what we study, since Divisions I (language and arts courses), II (social science courses) and III (science and mathematics courses) teach distinct approaches to problems. My Div. I and II courses have taught me how to interpret texts, arguments and social dynamics and discourse critically on them. (Foreign languages are their own creature, and I won’t address them.) My Div. III courses, on the other hand, have taught me how to analyze and describe data and concrete, everyday systems in nature. These two skill sets don’t live in separate sections of my brain; my rigorous scientific reasoning has helped me write better essays, and the willingness to abstract and intuit that I’ve gained in anthropology courses has helped me better understand and appreciate scientific problems. This synthesis of seemingly disparate skills has made me a better scientist and a more intellectually engaged person than I could have become if I did not have a liberal arts education.
Although it is important to take courses in all three divisions, it is harder to dabble in Div. III than in Div. I and Div. II. Many Div. III courses require a lab section, which immediately doubles the number of hours of instruction, and your science course might require you to relearn some tool, like calculus, that you have lost in the past few years. Most importantly, Div. III courses build skills in a linear sequence. Prerequisites in Div. I and II are flexible, but you can’t take knot theory before abstract algebra no matter how much permission from an instructor you get. The linear arrangement of courses in Div. III is essential for the proper training of scientists, but course tracks are alienating to students in other sciences and to students focusing on non-science coursework because they make studying the sciences a much more onerous course commitment.
The alienation in coursework is matched by alienation in more casual intellectual engagement. Talking about electrons at Williams is not like talking about Kant. It is more like talking in Spanish: Those who can’t understand the conversation have respect for the skill I have developed, but this respect is tempered by the boredom and irritation that come from hearing other people talk in code. The same problem also exists for scientists communicating across disciplines. In the course of founding the ScientEPHic Quarterly, Williams’s new magazine of science, I found that it was a challenge for science majors, even those doing theses, to talk comfortably with one another about their studies.
I sometimes wonder what causes the boredom, irritation and consequent shutdown of curiosity that accompanies discussion about science. “I don’t know anything about science” should sound as ridiculous as “I don’t know anything about literature, history, philosophy or art.” This statement wouldn’t be so frustrating if “I don’t know anything about science” didn’t carry along the undertone of “I don’t care to learn anything about it,” which again is as absurd as refusing to learn about literature, history, philosophy or art. Such an attitude is antithetical to a liberal arts education.
If you’re a Div. III major, don’t just shop for Div. I and II courses that won’t push you beyond your ability to reason scientifically, and if you’re a Div. I or II major, don’t just shop for the courses that will get you through the Div. III requirement as quickly or easily as possible. Then try talking with another student about their scientific coursework, understanding that it will be a challenge for you both.
Scott Olesen ’10 is a physics major from Millington, N.J.