Bartlett: Building the Shallow End

Dartmouth needs more science courses with a writing element.

by Nicholas Bartlett | 7/26/19 1:00am

Here at Dartmouth, the idea of a liberal arts education guides our institution like a north star. It’s why the distributive system plays such a prominent role, akin to “general education,” in our academic experience. And it certainly would explain why pamphlets and tour groups boast of the metamorphosis into well-rounded intellectuals (ergo capable within both STEM and the humanities) at every chance they get. The goal of our education is to cultivate the totality of our abilities, not just our respective disciplines. 

Yet I find a noticeable gulf between this idyllic expectation and our curriculum’s reality. Coursework often creates a stark disparity between STEM and the humanities. Some disciplines, like physics or computer science, necessitate an acuity with numbers that may be off-putting to humanities aficionados. Other fields, like English or comparative literature, require a familiarity with literary analysis that may come unnaturally to the STEM-inclined. Dartmouth’s curriculum needs a bridge: Dartmouth should offer more STEM courses with a concerted writing focus to serve as a middle-ground between two distinct halves of academia.

For humanities students with scientific interests, intensive quantitative workloads loom dauntingly as STEM’s bouncer, scaring away a hefty segment of the humanities-concentrating population for even daring to step foot on the premises. Don’t get me wrong, we’re all smart here at Dartmouth, but mathematical capacity is like our average appendage: Without consistent exercise, it withers. This proves increasingly problematic the further one delves into their curriculum, where scientific and mathematical intuition decay with neglect. An inevitable (sometimes precipitous) erosion of the STEM foundation doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for the would-be fish out of water considering a course outside the humanities, and it certainly influences how students elect their classes. 

The less self-assured one is in a given field, the more likely it is that one will opt for a course which is easy over one that seems interesting. Take the physics program, for example. The realm of theoretical physics is rife with an array of intellectual fruit from the biological to the celestial. However, the unnecessary marriage of the scientific to the quantitative at Dartmouth places an insurmountable barrier in the way of the STEM-aspiring humanities buff. And thus, disciplines which would otherwise entice students through their conceptual appeal instead deter by requiring highly technical mathematics. Students often fail to explore because of fear, not disinterest. 

A more writing-intensive approach would pay dividends by eliminating this barrier to entry. By teaching concepts in a reading-intensive, writing-heavy, discussion-based format reminiscent of the humanities, Dartmouth would lend somewhat foreign STEM concepts a familiar and thereby inviting aura. Such a shift would permit students to explore relevant and interesting themes in a way that feels natural to them, easing their anxieties and encouraging their engagement with STEM. In the blink of an eye, fascinating subjects like the inner workings of the internet or the theoretical underbelly of interstellar travel would evolve from off-putting to ineluctably attractive. This strategy would equally benefit the STEM contingency in pursuit of their necessary humanities credits. For those who spiral into a tailspin when confronted with essays and traditional literature, familiar content would help simplify their own transition from quantitative analysis to the literary realm. This curricular compromise thereby confers a distinct intermediary benefit onto either academic hemisphere here at Dartmouth: Humanities members explore new scientific content through a familiar literary framework, whereas STEM patrons explore new communicative frameworks within a familiar thematic context. Simple course ideas to the tune of “the science behind search engines” or “the implications of interstellar travel,” for example, would work wonders. 

Naysayers may retort that this new approach would only dilute the quality of the STEM-oriented curriculum. Students could lose out on a bit of numerical exposure if they were instead to opt for any of these new-and-improved courses. But what are we really teaching in STEM classrooms, the numbers or the theory? If my own experience is anything to go by, a course endures to the extent that I absorbed its concepts, not its technical underbelly. It’s this very content which proves both more useful and more widely applicable than the numerical minutia. This isn’t to say that math doesn’t matter — it does. But Dartmouth’s rigorous admission standards ensure that each member of the student body already possesses the acumen necessary to perform rote computations in a pinch. Opening the floodgates of STEM content would in no way come at the cost of mathematical literacy.

Think of a curriculum like a gargantuan swimming pool. Confident swimmers are likely to plunge straight into the perilous depths of the far end. Less aquatically familiar individuals, however, would rather ease their way into waist-deep waters and gain their bearings. What Dartmouth so desperately needs is a shallow end, that oh-so-crucial comfort zone which allows students to begin realizing their potential. Would a STEM-humanities hybrid lack the raw abundance of either of its individual components? Invariably so. But would it permit the student body to more boldly and efficaciously explore disciplines which fall outside of their respective comfort zone? Absolutely. So if Dartmouth truly yearns to broaden our intellectual horizons, some additional STEM courses with a writing focus are an excellent place to start.