Monday, November 19, 2007

Thoughts on Undergraduate Majors, Well-Roundedness and Fluency

A civil discussion/blogfight of epic proportions is currently being waged in the comments to Paul Gowder's previous post on Why You Shouldn't Go To Law School. I urge you to check it out. Join the fray, if you wish.

For my part, I'm largely staying out of this debate, because it's just going in circles, albeit in interesting patterns.

I'd say that for myself, I didn't do badly by majoring in English literature, doubling in a social science, taking advanced statistics courses, and taking college level natural sciences, as was required by my university. And because of all of this I can read Finnegan's Wake, likely with greater ability than most science majors because of all of the training in literary analysis. I can write quickly and well, when I get around to it. I can do statistical analysis on a computer or by hand, and am going to take graduate level statistics courses this year, being primed enough by my previous training. I can at least read some science articles, and feel comforted that not even my very smart science friends really get Bayes' Theorem, so it's "not just me." I remember the Krebs' cycle. I am not anti-science--I wanted to be a scientist when I was younger, and my entire family is trained in science. I am, however, very pro-humanities. I think the study of humanities and social science has been devalued ever since Sputnik--if you look at where the money is going in a university, it is not going to a linguistics department. I am grateful for my courses in philosophy and art history no matter how "useless" others might think them, and yes, I think they make me better rounded.

Roundedness is not merely the stretching of the self to one polar extreme or another, as that's just being pulled in different directions. Well-rounded educations are a little bit of everything. I never said that it was sufficient for a humantities major to take more humanities courses and call it a day. I said that it behooved any person to do more than one major, preferably in two different cognate disciplines. I have two different diplomas, because they were awarded by different schools--the School of Humanities and the School of Social Sciences. Along the way I learned things outside my discipines of literature and political science, and that is where my roundedness comes from. I would not be more rounded if I had only done English literature and taken a few science and math courses. My circle of knowledge would have expanded if I had added more math and science to my repertoire of literature, political science, anthropology, sociology, economics, philosophy, language, and art than I had already done by virtue of college-level statistics and biology.

It is not an either-or proposition, humanities or sciences. It is a what-ratio-to-what, and in-addition-to-what proposition. I am fluent in two disciplines, and well-read in others. But even then, as I further specialize in my graduate program, my fluency levels change again. No longer am I so fluent in literary criticism and analysis, nor political theory and science. What I do now is nominally similar to my undergraduate training, and hell, law school training, but so interdisciplinary (the sociology of law) and at the same highly specialized (employment disrimination) as to become my dominant field of study to the near exclusion of others. I may continue to read in other disciplines, but I will always be a dilettante--relatively well-read, and conversant and able to understand, but by no means extraordinarily fluent. This, I imagine, is the case with anyone who is trying to read something they no longer study deeply or only study informally, be they a scientist trying to gread difficult modernist ficiton, or be they a humanities scholar trying to read a scientific journal. If you read widely enough, and have good reading skills, even the moderately informed may figure out a table, a chart, or a particularly difficult passage. Fluency comes with time and effort. One must make a choice between being well-read and reading widely.