Swipe left to keep

Kept articles are stored in your profile for you to read later.

Got it!

Major shaming





Major shaming

Are some majors harder than others?

Jen Semler


“What are you majoring in?”

With time, I’ve perfected my response to this inescapable question:

“Philosophy, but I’m also majoring in Public Policy and minoring in Economics.”

You see, the trick is starting with the one that genuinely interests you but isn’t really ‘enough.’ So then you throw in the more ‘practical’ one that can be directly linked to a future career. But that’s kind of generic. So, finally, you add in the ‘challenging’ one that shows off your quantitative skills and proves that you’re smart.
While studying abroad, I found myself in one of those unavoidable, awkward situations where you have nothing to talk to a stranger about except where you’re from and what you’re studying. So, when I hesitantly told the third-year medical student that I was majoring in philosophy, I expected one of the typical responses:

“Oh…that’s cool,” “That sounds interesting, but what do you do with a philosophy major?” or “So who’s your favorite philosopher?”

(As a side note, that last question confuses me. I’ve never heard someone ask something similar about another major, and people always seem disappointed when I tell them I don’t have a favorite philosopher. They then typically add in a somewhat relevant comment about how they learned about Socrates in high school, but liked Plato better. But I digress.)
When I mentioned my single area of study without the inclusion of the ‘practical’ and ‘challenging’ ones, my new acquaintance had a striking response.

“Wow,” she said. “That’s so tough. I could never do philosophy.”

More astonishingly, her answer was sincere and untainted by the hint of condescension I often hear when STEM majors tell me:

“I could never write as many essays as you. I prefer test-based classes,” or “I could never do as much reading as you. I’m better with problem sets.”

Just to clarify, I’m not trying to hate on STEM majors, even if they’re rolling their eyes in preparation for what’s to come. But, at least back at Duke, there’s some underlying consensus, some implicit understanding, that certain subjects are ‘objectively’ harder than others, irrespective of an individual’s talents. I’m not talking about superficial differences across subjects like harsher grading requirements or more homework either. Rather, we think that certain disciplines have inherent qualities that make them more academically rigorous than others.
But how can we really make these ‘objective’ statements about vastly different subjects with which each of us has a subjective relationship?

Perhaps it’s because STEM students don’t fear the humanities as much as the humanities students fear STEM. I rarely hear concerns about which classes are easy EI or CZ credits. However, come bookbagging season, people start asking friends about QS classes that “aren’t really math” and NS classes that “aren’t too science-y.”

Maybe we feel more surprised when a smart STEM student gets a bad grade on an essay than when a smart humanities student gets a bad grade on a problem set. We might even have good grounds for thinking that it’s challenging for a humanities student to excel in an upper-level science class while it’s possible for a STEM student to get an A in an upper-level history course.

Or it could be that the skills used in humanities courses (reading, writing, and critical thinking) are more generally accessible and rooted in our common knowledge and experiences than those skills important for STEM courses. But should that mean that STEM majors are definitely harder?
Unfortunately, the notion that certain ways of thinking are superior to others was hardwired into our brains long before we got to Duke. Our high schools make it more difficult and desirable to get into the advanced math and science tracks than the advanced English and history courses. Moreover, we’re taught that math is a subject that people are naturally either good at or bound to fail, leading many students to fear the subject and view it as inaccessible. “I’m just bad at math” is a more acceptable excuse than “I’m just bad at history.”

By the time we get to college, being a ‘quantitative thinker’ is depicted as involving more mental exertion than being a ‘qualitative thinker.’ Most people try to counteract this narrative by showing that the humanities can be just as rigorous as STEM. This approach is important, but it is equally important to show that the hard sciences are much more comprehensible for non-scientists than we expect. The goal of such efforts should not be to fight exaggeration with exaggeration and wrongly claim that STEM classes are easy. Instead, this technique might begin to soften the harsh divide that exists between STEM and the humanities.
Think about the smartest people in the world. Are they all mathematicians and scientists, or are some of them writers, comedians, politicians, directors, and teachers? I doubt they could all ace organic chemistry. The point here is that every discipline develops different skills that are useful in different contexts. Each field draws upon intelligence in ways beyond the oversimplifications that dominate conversations about majors. We need to stop worrying about how we should be majoring in something ‘hard’ in order to ‘get a good job.’ We’re all Duke students, so let’s revel in the fact that we can complain about how hard our classes are, no matter what department they’re under.