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If The Humanities Want More Respect, They Need to Get Tougher

Techie–fuzzy arguments at Stanford often take the form of arguments over who has more work. “This is actually so hard” reads a post on the Stanford Memes for Edgy Trees page, captioned with the words, “when a stem has to write a 2 page paper [sic].” Another meme-ster countered with an image of a despairing child, labeled “humanities majors,” underneath the words “Professor: ‘code one recursion.’”

Essays, obviously, are not intrinsically more or less difficult than problem sets. But no less obvious is the fact that while the average STEM class assigns, more or less, a problem set per week, the average humanities class assigns one, two, or maybe three papers over a ten-week quarter. The high volume of reading assigned in many humanities classes may, to a degree, offset this differential; but many humanities classes substitute a sit-down final with a final paper on a topic of your choosing. This creates a situation where there is essentially no penalty for not doing the bulk of the reading. What’s more, humanities majors consist of far fewer units than STEM majors. Philosophy is 55; mechanical engineering is around 120.

So what if humanities students do less work? It’s true that less work does not necessarily mean the humanities disciplines themselves are less rigorous, even if that is a common assumption among STEM students. But the real casualty of Stanford’s easy humanities classes is not the reputation of the liberal arts — it is the chance for humanities students to study their disciplines more deeply and rigorously.

I’d long suspected this was the case, but while studying abroad at Oxford, I found evidence to support my claim. In my tutorial on nineteenth-century political philosophy, I had to read over three hundred pages and write an eight-page paper each week. For the first (and thus far the only) time, I worked as hard as I see my STEM peers working, spending the bulk of every day in the library or in one of Oxford’s coffee…

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