Editorial: Make sciences and humanities equally difficult

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The University should seek to minimize the discrepancy in difficulty among its various departments and concentrations. In general, courses offered in the sciences require significantly more effort and time. Though we acknowledge the recent conversation regarding grade inflation, we firmly believe the University must work to implement a more standardized grading framework to account for discrepancies across departments. While the gross quantity of A-level grades awarded has risen over the past few years — a trend consistent across the various academic spheres — the current system does not address the blatant inequalities in the associated workload and benchmarks.

According to the Critical Review, humanities courses require roughly six hours of work per week, with some demanding as few as three. CSCI 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science” and CHEM 0350: “Organic Chemistry,” on the other hand, report maximum hours of 21 and 26 per week respectively, with averages above 10 hours. In addition, many of these courses include a three-hour weekly lab section, and bachelor of science degrees require sometimes twice as many courses as bachelor of arts.

While the added difficulty of the sciences may better prepare undergraduates for graduate programs and medical school, it also deters many students from concentrating in science, technology, engineering and mathemetics. When choosing concentrations, first-years and sophomores choosing concentrations may consider whether they want to work twice as much as friends studying humanities and social sciences.

But in addition to deterring students from concentrating in these challenging fields, these greater demands also push humanities students away from STEM electives. While many physics and biology undergraduates use electives to try courses in political science and history, this trend is in no way mirrored by students concentrating in the latter — a definite weakness in the framework of the open curriculum.

Certainly one of the hurdles is that humanities courses often do not require prerequisites while science departments offer few courses that do not require some prerequisites. Still, more students might continue math or biology where they left off in high school if they did not view the subjects as twice as much work as an economics course.

Science courses must limit how much they ask of students. While this change might reduce the breadth of courses and thoroughness of a class’s understanding, it would also produce a more well-rounded student body with more undergraduates pursuing degrees in STEM and other concentrators exploring the hard sciences.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board, led by Alexander Kaplan ’15 and James Rattner ’15. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.

  • anon

    Why should science courses reduce workload? That seems antithetical to the goals of attending an academically-oriented university. Maybe instead, you should suggest that humanities and social science courses should become more rigorous

  • Nat

    Are we really worried about enrollments in science classes? Doesn’t the data– falling enrollments in departments like English or French or Sociology– suggest that Brown students are not choosing their courses based on the perception of lighter workload? Plus, if a History class assigns a 200-page book each week, what is the workload? The student who claims 3 hours clearly isn’t doing the reading!

  • Brown ’06

    Articles like this should really more attention. It is, after all, classes and programs of study that have a bigger impact on many of us. Nudity week, protests, politics, and people-with-and-axe-to-grind are hot-button topics that come and go.

    By nature, sciences simply require more time and analysis, although I wouldn’t say they are necessary better than humanities. Sometimes you spend 3 hours in the lab because the experiment requires it. No way around it.

    That being said, humanities courses require a lot of time outside of class. Reading and writing essays are not usually the bread and butter of sciences.

    • MD/PhD Candidate

      “Reading and writing essays are not usually the bread and butter of sciences.”

      Actually – when it comes to advanced study of science. That’s a very large portion of it.

    • hmm

      anyone think “brown ’06” has ever been frisked or beaten by a cop?

  • Really

    Frankly I see this as an indictment of the attitudes towards some humanities students, not the science curricula.

    It’s the reason I preferred, for example, choosing COLT courses over ENGL ones. I felt the environment was better, and frankly my professors were challenging.

    • Really

      Too much frankly.

      I’d get a C

  • Chester Chase

    This is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.

  • Double STEM

    STEM could not lower standards without seriously jeopardizing the success of students later on, whether in graduate school or in industry. We can’t afford to dumb it down, much as many of us in the thick of it would undoubtedly prefer.

    The fact that non-STEM classes have no pre-reqs has actually disappointed me. I’m a double-STEM concentrator in a 1000-level poli-sci/economics class this semester that has no pre-reqs. While it’s nominally inviting, it’s difficult to have a fruitful conversation when too many people in the class don’t have a basic foundation in economics. It’s not the first time I’ve ended up in such a situation.

    If you want parity, the solution is to make non-STEM harder. The whole STEM-being-condescending-to non-STEM-because-it’s-too-easy thing may have some truth to it – it IS too easy.

  • STEM concentrator

    lol I don’t even know where to begin, this article is laughable

  • anon

    This is utterly ridiculous. Maybe Organic Chemistry is a bit too nuts (I dropped it at Brown and had a difficult but manageable experience with it at another great university) but science is supposed to be difficult, for goodness sake. It would hurt our alums significantly if their science degrees were not seen as rigorously obtained, and that matters far more than a few humanities majors learning more science. Frankly, if you don’t actually use science, a lot of it becomes rather useless trivia that you forget a few weeks after learning. But if you DO need to use it, then you need to understand it really well, and then you can do amazing things for the world. On the other hand, regardless of what grade a professor gives you, the humanities are actually difficult if you want to have a deep understanding of them. I agree with the response op-ed on his analysis of the humanities, though his depiction of the sciences rather sadly indicates that he has little scientific experience, since he presumptuously states that they require no creativity.