The Divide Between Art and Science

By Stella Haffner   |   October 19, 2021

Dear Montecito,

Last week we spoke about the importance of scientific curiosity and developing a sense of adventure. This week, I think we’d do well to examine the divide between science and arts disciplines.

When discussing the separation of arts and sciences, it is hard not to address the elephant in the room. This elephant is better known as “the decline of the arts.” Now, given the overexposure of this issue, no journalist wants to touch this topic with a 10-foot pole (or perhaps we should start calling them “corona sticks”). But because I am neither a very practiced journalist nor willing to leave out a key part of the picture, I think this is as good a place to start as any. As you may know, the decline of the arts refers not to a deterioration of any art quality but instead it refers to the academic pessimism that humanities students are jumping ship for the much more marketable — supposedly, much more employable — STEM fields. And as an arts-to-science convert myself, I began to wonder whether there is any stock in this.

It does appear to be true that student admission into the humanities has dropped, with American colleges estimating a 30% reduction since the early 2000s. However, these sorts of statistics usually seem to be where the conversation starts and ends. But as someone who has spent a good deal of her degree punching about with numbers, I’m here to tell you that these statistics aren’t everything. In fact, they seem to be pointing the blame at the wrong thing entirely and thus worsen the problem.

A quick scroll through online discourse on the decline of the arts would have you believe that students no longer favor the humanities because of a systemic push towards science. This discourse exercises the explicit argument that students are choosing STEM, but also employs the much more nefarious implicit argument: to choose STEM is to abandon arts. This is the real rot. How can we ask students to engage equally with different disciplines when they operate within this collegiate sphere’s wild contradiction — we can’t expect students to bail us out when we emphasize collaboration and interdisciplinary learning while simultaneously segregating academic achievement based on discipline.

This is one of the few times I think the United States demonstrates a more intellectually progressive position. In this country, students attend classes for a wide variety of subjects to complete their general ed courses, and by extension, these students are exposed to a wide variety of classmates. In the UK, you only attend classes within your discipline, and it is very rare for students to straddle faculties, in large part because the academic system makes it infeasible. The divide is so much a part of our university life that it seeps into the student culture prompting such comments as (I kid you not): “Oh what? They study chemistry? What did you guys even talk about?”

This is what I mean when I say the disciplines have been segregated. Not only is our time on campus structured so we have minimal contact with other disciplines, but our time off campus is shaped by this as well. This is the key element that is absent in the “decline of the arts” op-eds, the acknowledgement that a science-arts divide is baked into our culture, not the result of a push-and-pull from one to another. Until we reframe these disciplines and stop marketing them as antagonistic forces, we will only worsen the divide.

I’m of course not trying to construct a straw man here. There is utility to organizing courses by where they fall in the academic sphere; no one is pretending that a film student would enjoy a biochemistry lecture. Equally, we must acknowledge that many of these subjects have their roots in similar places. The construction of a good faith argument, due process, and academic integrity didn’t emerge spontaneously in each different discipline but were curated in the seed of academia. In the same way, students learn convergent skills regardless of their major – we are taught to be curious, encouraged to be thorough, pushed to be inventive, especially when deadlines turn the corner too quickly. Creativity is essential for scientific innovation and analytical thinking is key to enlightenment within the humanities.

To put this all briefly: we cannot continue to treat arts and sciences as completely divorceable entities while expecting better results within a student’s university education. We must change our thinking to move forward.

Oh, and while we’re at it, can we get rid of this right-brain, left-brain nonsense? That was stirred up by some personality science charlatan and has been sticking like chewing gum to psychology’s heel ever since. Stop it. 




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