From relatively early on in school, young people start to think of themselves as ‘more sciency’ or ‘more of a humanities or languages person’. With these two poles, to one of which many students sooner or later find themselves gravitating, we tend to associate different personality attributes and skills. For humanities subjects, creative and outside-the-box thinking is deemed to be important, and we tend to expect people in the humanities to have a vivid imagination and maybe also an elaborate, ornate writing style. For the natural sciences, by contrast, we assume that what’s needed is sharpness and coherence of thought, quickness of the mind, and maybe most importantly, good quantitative reasoning skills.
Of course, these assumptions about what it takes to be a good science or humanities student, and about what challenges the sciences vs. humanities have on offer, are broad-brush characterisations of stereotypes regarding the humanities and sciences skill sets. However, whether these stereotypes are accurate or not, they influence which subjects young people choose to take up for GCSEs and A-Levels, and they also guide their decision-process when it comes to making university applications. The main point here is that the way science is perceived in society and the way it is taught in school often conceal that in scientific endeavours, there is not only the opportunity but rather the necessity for creative minds to be involved.
Whilst there is a perceived lack of creativity in science, I can say from personal experience that excessive apprehension about the role of maths in science subjects can also put students off applying for science degrees. When I was still at school, I thought that psychology would be a very interesting subject to do at university – the problem was that psychology is a science and I was told there’s a lot of statistics involved. I hadn’t ever been anywhere near as confident about sciences and maths as about my languages and wondered whether I’d be able to manage. In hindsight, I’m happy I didn’t let the daunting prospect of statistics discourage me from doing psychology. The ability to engage with the big-picture questions and with the concepts that one tries to pin down, does often not build on quantitative reasoning skills. The latter become important when it comes to making sense of your data, but before and after that there’s a lot of conceptual thinking needed. When one’s forte is not in maths, then maybe one can be a good scientist by contributing more at the conceptual end. Again, the point I want to make is that well-meant advice students receive when applying to university can wrongly deter them from science subjects.
In the Ordered Universe Project, humanities scholars and modern scientists collaborate to translate Grosseteste’s scientific models from Latin into English. This allows a subsequent interpretation, including geometrical diagrams and mathematical equations (see for examples the group’s publications on the De colore, the De luce and the De ride). With regard to contributions that are creative, outside-the-box suggestions, or digging deeper into the mathematical concepts in Grosseteste’s models, however, it seems to me that there is hardly any division according to disciplines. I think this illustrates that the stereotypes of what it takes to be a humanities scholar vs. a scientist aren’t good representations of reality. Scientists are not uncreative quantitative reasoning machines, and people who don’t have formal training in maths still have valuable things to say about mathematical constructs.
Even further, it is not despite the divergence in areas of expertise but rather because of it that the Ordered Universe group can work together to elucidate Grosseteste’s scientific models. The Project is not interdisciplinary in the sense that people from different areas each do their thing and at the end add their respective contributions together. Quite to the contrary, the work is done in collaborative reading sessions that are marked by eager exchange and the integration of ideas, and through asking the right questions, medievalists and scientists evoke ideas in each other. When it comes to developing our understanding of what Grosseteste had in mind, there is not so much the adding-together of separate humanities and science skill sets but rather collaboration in thinking that has truly transcended differences in disciplines.
 This might sound as if I’m saying that all reasons against doing a science subject at university are misconceived, which is of course not the point I’m trying to make. Whichever way one decides, I think it would be good to be able to make an informed choice. To this end, one needs to have reasonably accurate assumptions about what one lets oneself in for, and the examples are meant to illustrate that this is often not the case.
One thought on “About What It Takes: Assumptions About Skill Sets in the Humanities and Sciences”
Reblogged this on Bishop's Blog and commented:
And here is Ulrike’s second post. I was one of those who had in effect to choose between sciences and humanities aged 15, despite (in my case) having a facility in both. As you’ll have realised, I’ve tried on and off ever since to keep scientifically literate, and am presently trying to up my maths from what is now called AS to A2. The logical underpinning of maths has aleays fascinated me (I read Russell and then Hoftstadter as a student) but never got into the detail of more than basic calculus, vectors, sets and the rest. Not so easy at 63!