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Hillestad ’15: Keep the humanities free and the sciences hard

Hard-core students study the hard sciences but leave the humanities to the slackers. After all, anyone can cook up a philosophy paper, but try that approach on an orgo exam and you’ll learn firsthand that grade inflation at Brown isn’t all it’s chalked up to be.

Or so goes the common rhetoric here.

While there is an undeniable difference between the work required in the sciences and in the humanities, that’s no reason to change anything. The humanities are what you make of them. And you can make very little of them if you want.

The workload gap between the sciences and humanities is a common, albeit controversial, talking point among Brown students. And that conversation usually ends in a begrudging compromise. The computer science concentrator admits she would only write a paper because of Brown’s writing requirement, and the history student accepts that he would never venture into the depths of a biology classroom.

And that’s perfectly fine. Brown’s open curriculum grants more than enough freedom to students. Contrary to what a recent Herald editorial argued, there is no reason to arbitrarily tinker with the difficulty of classes to get more intermingling between departments. In fact, there is no inherent gap between the workload of the sciences and the humanities. The workload in a humanities course is not necessarily lighter. But it can be if you want. The difference between the disciplines is that the humanities allow for a wider range of effort.

The alleged problem with the humanities is that shortcuts are acceptable. You can get by in a political science course without doing all of the reading. You can skate through courses in the humanities without learning much of anything at all. You’ll get by with mainly B’s, or if you’re especially lazy, even the occasional C.

But none of that matters. At Brown, the impetus for learning is placed in the hands of the individual. Brown is not culpable for your lack of an education.

I should know. I’ve taken my fair share of humanities courses in which I’ve skimped on the readings and sat through class in a half-asleep stupor. And I regret taking those classes. It’s not that the professor should have made the course harder. It’s not that I wish physics courses were easier so I could take those instead. I just took the wrong class and suffered the consequences. That’s a risk we take with the open curriculum.

Studying the humanities — especially at Brown — is risky. The freedom can be stifling. If you don’t customize your education just right, you may get stuck in boring humanities classes where you can get an A with minimal effort.

The hard sciences, on the other hand, force you to learn the material or fail. While that’s intimidating — and maybe even unfortunate — that’s the nature of the beast. Science is fundamentally about facts, objectivity and pure methodology. There’s no room for interpretation or creativity.

But again, that’s not a problem. If I were legitimately interested in studying the hard sciences, I would, regardless of the course load’s difficulty.

The Herald’s recent editorial correctly points out that the sciences, on average, take up more time per week than the humanities — sometimes even requiring twice the work. But that average is skewed by non-concentrators taking humanities courses, a phenomenon that is generally not reciprocal. Furthermore, the lack of mandated weekly work in humanities courses means you can skip readings, and sometimes even class, without jeopardizing your grade.

So yes, humanities courses tend to take less effort. But their upper bound is infinitely higher than that of the sciences. A humanities paper can always be improved and polished further. You can always redo readings, analyzing the arguments in greater and greater detail. You can even do original work, exploring the philosophical depths of your own mind, using classwork as little more than a springboard. But a problem set can never be more correct. In contrast to science coursework, the amount of effort you put into a humanities course is entirely up to you.

Moreover, there are plenty of easy, introductory science courses at Brown. GEOL 0010: “Face of the Earth,” also known as “Rocks for Jocks,” or CSCS 0080: “A First Byte of Computer Science,” are notoriously simple courses that non-concentrators can take for an easy A. These courses are widely mocked, showing that Brown students have an extreme aversion to watering down the sciences. Even as a philosophy concentrator, I join them in their mocking. I took GEOL0010 sophomore year. It felt like a high school class, and an easy one at that.

The editorial argues, “The current system does not address the blatant inequalities in the associated workload and benchmarks.” I agree wholeheartedly. But I disagree that this is a problem that needs to be addressed, and even if it were, the solution would be to increase the difficulty of humanities courses, not to soften the hard sciences.

The humanities can be as difficult or as easy as you want them to be. That makes studying the humanities both rewarding and dangerous. Any alteration to the system of free inquiry that the humanities have carefully cultivated, or any lowering of the rigorous academic standard set by the sciences, would be to the detriment of Brown students.



Sam Hillestad ’15 will defend the humanities, with all its flaws, to the death. He can be reached at


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