The Sciences and Humanities at Vassar: Are We Building a Better Bridge?

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In 1961, Norton Juster published The Phantom Tollbooth, a modern children’s fairytale adventure full of puns and allegories. The history of the land of Wisdom, as written in The Phantom Tollbooth, is the following : Its two rulers, King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician, had two adopted younger sisters, Rhyme and Reason, who were the peacekeepers. All of Wisdom’s inhabitants knew that as long as Rhyme and Reason were around, nothing was impossible. There was only peace until the two rulers decided that the princesses were wrong in decreeing letters and numbers equally important. The princesses were thus banished to the Castle in the Air, and as a result, the kingdom lost both Rhyme and Reason.

This eternal struggle between rhyme and reason in the land of Wisdom is not too far away from the challenges on Vassar’s campus. The college’s recent construction of a new Science Center Bridge has angered a number of its faculty, particularly those in the Humanities department. They argue that the enormous amount of money spent building the 80,000-square-foot structure, which will include a two-level skywalk, could have been better used on something else. I am not going to discuss in this article whether or not I think this new Science Center was a good idea, or whether I believe it to have been justified. There is no right or wrong answer, and it is impossible to have an informed opinion on the matter when there is a disturbing lack of transparency on how Vassar spends its money. However, the science and humanities at Vassar–much like Jester’s Rhyme and Reason–are disparate fields that must co-exist on a liberal arts campus for the benefit of both.

The aim of the Bridge Building is to connect Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, recognizing that, as Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette put it: “Bringing multiple disciplinary perspectives together is fundamental to majors such as Biochemistry; Neuroscience and Behavior; Earth Science and Society; Science, Technology, and Society; Environmental Studies; and Cognitive Science, which draw from various fields.” The structure will house modern labs, faculty office suites, classrooms, and gathering places such as a café and an outdoor seating area, but the main benefit of the Bridge is that it physically and metaphorically bridges the gap between Olmsted Hall of Biology, Mudd Chemistry, and Sanders Physics buildings. It will be a spot at which labs and classes in all three of these sciences can be taken. This is all in an effort to uphold Vassar’s Mission Statement to “[promote] an analytical, informed, and independent thinking and sound judgment; encourage articulate expression; and nurture intellectual curiosity, creativity, respectful debate and engaged citizenship.”

In my experience, this has been laughably false. To appreciate the absurdity in this statement, one need only recognize the level of dissonance between the purpose of the Bridge and Vassar’s mission statement–while the Bridge attempts to form more concrete connections between all areas in the sciences, there is absolutely no mention of the humanities. The website that describes the new Science Center states the reason for the center’s creation several times: “Vassar’s facilities have not reflected or supported the unprecedented interdisciplinary nature of scientific study in the 21st century.” While this is undoubtedly true, this is an extremely narrow and microscopic area to focus on. How can a “respectful debate” be had when “intellectual curiosity” and “creativity” are not able to flourish? A truly interdisciplinary bridge–one that captures the nature of true liberal arts learning and knowledge– needs to be made between the sciences and the humanities at Vassar, fostered by both the administration and its students.

The building of the Bridge was a catalyst of sorts for the rather hostile relationship between the sciences and the humanities, in which both departments are very quick to point fingers and invalidate the importance of the other. I have seen this transpire many times here, in both types of classes, and teachers have often mocked other areas of study which lie outside of their department. This complaint is unproductive regardless of which side it is coming from, since there is no one right way to learn. Letters and numbers do not seem to be regarded as equally important in the acquisition of wisdom: Rhyme and Reason are out of sync.

Drawing of Leonardo da Vinci, polymath, sculptor, painter, engineer, writer, which illustrates the crossover between the science and humanities. Photo credit:http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/wisl/images/Leonardo-Man.jpg

Drawing of Leonardo da Vinci, polymath, sculptor, painter, engineer, writer, which illustrates the crossover between the science and humanities. Photo credit: http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/wisl/images/Leonardo-Man.jpg

Throughout elementary and middle school, I considered myself as an “English kid,” and assumed that putting effort into science would be a waste of time because I would never do well. And I really loved English, so I didn’t feel as though I was missing out on anything because I was spending my time on something I cared about. I am not exactly sure what the pivotal moment was, but at some point I became overwhelmed by how much I did not know about the world because I had limited my scope to the humanities. I then enlisted in a program at the American Museum of Natural History in which I eventually did research in physical anthropology–combining my interest in history with the science I had learned. Since then, I have tried being as well-rounded as possible, but still science challenges me intellectually and emotionally. When I am in my darkest depths of depression, having to take a Chemistry test pushes me even deeper; I am quick to succumb to self-hatred, thinking, “How dare you think you are smart enough to even attempt studying these concepts?” But I really do believe that having exposure to these very different areas of study, science and the humanities, has broadened my perspective, allowing me to think more creatively, or at least be more open to new ideas. I sometimes use the scientific method to unpack a piece of literature, and all of cognitive science is an intersection of the sciences and humanities, using philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, computer science, and any other area of study to better understand how the mind works. Attempting to take a crack at understanding human beings requires knowledge both of their biological makeup, as well as they way their brains work, and their sociological background. Thus, while Vassar is definitely at fault in this failed relationship between letters and numbers, I also know that it is up to students to take courses they never thought they were “good enough” for. Part of me is flattered when people call me a “science kid,” but merely taking science classes should not be impressive. In fact, anyone I know could be doing the same thing.

I originally fell in love with Vassar because I saw it as a place where ideas from all areas of study could come together, fostering discussion, debate, and, ultimately, growth and understanding. Instead, I have found that any conversation that occurs is between members of the same interest groups, and between people who, for the most part, hold the same beliefs: people from both the sciences and humanities tend to stay in their comfort zone. While I recognize that this conflict between letters and numbers extends far beyond the scope of our college, I focus only on Vassar because nothing is being done to fix, or even address, the issue. This College actively avoids doing anything to facilitate dialogue between these respective academics. While the college may be pouring money into a Bridge that will make the campus more appealing to tour groups, in reality, they are doing little to better the sciences at Vassar, or make them more accessible to students. For example, the administration has not committed to hiring more science faculty which would make getting into classes more feasible, and potentially lead to new classes being offered and smaller class sizes. Vassar has also not adjusted its credit system, in which classes with four-hour labs–about three times the amount of class time–count the same as all other classes. This just makes it even harder for students who don’t consider themselves “science kids” to challenge themselves by taking science classes. The only real attempts at enforcing some crossover is a policy of requiring 50% of coursework outside of one’s major, and 25% outside of their major division, but there are many alternatives to taking a science or humanities class when one is not inclined. Even the QA requirement does not seem to be effective, as it is often viewed as a class one must “get out of the way,” instead of an opportunity to explore something new. Instead of solely implementing these sorts of policies, Vassar needs to instead focus on inspiring its students, perhaps by putting up posters for lectures not just in their respective academic buildings, and have professors try to integrate all areas of study into their material.

The unnatural divide between the humanities and sciences needs to be eradicated completely. I know this is easier said than done, but I am devastated by the idea that someone would feel as though they were incapable of taking a science or humanities class; the conglomeration of the two is exactly what allows real “independent thought” to flourish. And while students studying in the humanities do need to get over their fear of science, the same holds true for science students. This belief that the sciences are somehow inherently harder or more worthy of praise is perpetuated in the media, with articles such as “Questions Science Students Have for Arts Students”, ensuring that the bizarre level of estrangement between “rhyme and reason” continues to exist. There are examples of the sciences and humanities working together, productively and synergistically, such as the use of literature in medicine to teach doctors empathy, MIT’s Master’s program in Science Writing and the recent call to add A (Arts) into STEM education.

Narrative medicine is a blossoming field of study that combines literature and medicine in an effort to bring objectivity and empathy to clinical practice and education. Schools are trying to make such practices more personal, taking a patient’s psychology and background into account for their diagnosis. Arts are even being used to teach doctors empathy. Dr. Reiss, at the forefront of this movement, said in “Can Doctors Learn Empathy?,” “We are in a special place in the history of medicine…We have the neurophysiology data that validates and helps move medicine back to a real balance between the science and the art.” We are in a special place in our history in general, with the advancement of art and science allowing for the flourishing and advancement of both. In fact, there is even talk of adding a new letter to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to incorporate the arts. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

In the end of The Phantom Tollbooth, Wisdom is restored by uniting Rhyme and Reason, thus reconciling King Azaz and the Mathemagician. While the lesson of this story may be obvious, steps toward making this tale a reality at Vassar are not. If we are to take the Mission Statement seriously, there needs to be greater dialogue–and collaboration– between students, faculty, and the administration from both the sciences and humanities Starting this interdisciplinary conversation would work to begin confronting the inflammatory subjects of debate on campus. Whether this can be achieved depends on how willing we are to open our minds and engage with each other. We must build a better bridge.

 

 

 

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