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The Liberal Arts Dilemma

(Marie Lambert)–I have a prepared response ready for whenever someone asks me why I want to be an English major. First, I lay down the foundations of my childhood: I learned to read from an early age; a cloth book was my favorite toy. I preferred trips to the library to trips to the mall. In the fifth grade, a like-minded friend and I tried (and failed) to write our first novels. By the time I was in high school, whispers of the future began to reach the edges of my consciousness. All I knew was that I wanted to read books—and maybe write a couple—for the rest of my life. To my delight, they told me there was a college major for that: the English major. So here I am, about to officially declare, and fulfill a childhood dream.

But it wasn’t always my childhood dream, or at least it is true to only parts of achildhood dream. When I was in kindergarten, I loved animals as much as books, and was absolutely sure that I would be a veterinarian “when I grew up.”  This was actually my main childhood dream, long before the idea of being a writer even entered my mind (at one point I also fervently wished to be a pilot in the Air Force, because fighter jets were much cooler than boring commercial planes, but a fear of heights soon squashed those plans). I stalked the animals in my back yard, hoping to have to rescue one from injury, watched all episodes of Emergency Vets on Animal Planet, and checked out countless books from the library on animal behavior and anatomy. In fact, I found science in general extremely interesting. There was no insect too gross for me to examine, and I used to collect and save the skin that the garter snakes in my neighborhood would shed and keep it in a box under my bed.

So what changed? Why am I an English major at Amherst College and not a pre-vet at Iowa State University? At some point between middle school and high school my interests and priorities changed vastly. It is obviously not uncommon to gain and lose interests as you age, but lately I have wondered what specifically led to such a dramatic switch from my preference for the sciences to the humanities.

Studies abound explaining how subtle negative gender stereotypes in the classroom may push girls away from math and science. And maybe this is what happened to me. I took upper level math and science all through high school and was not surprised to always be one of the few females in my classes. Learning in these areas wasn’t easy for me like it was in my language or government classes, but I worked hard and struggled through with not just passing, but good grades.

But still, AP Calc just wasn’t very fun or interesting. It was just something I did, knowing it was another step closer to Amherst, where I would never have to take another math or science class again.

And so far, I haven’t. There have been a couple “science/math for non-majors” courses that have piqued my interest, but another humanities class usually wins out in the end. I often become embarrassed when doing work with friends who are struggling through Organic Chemistry or Linear Algebra. While they could probably do my readings and write my papers, there is just no way I could complete or even comprehend their problems sets and the advanced calculations involved. This was a path I could have taken, but chose to leave behind.

With the implementation of Title IX, there has been an increased call for women in the previously male dominated “STEM” fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. There seems to be a sense of empowerment attached to being a woman pursuing such a field—a feeling that they are breaking the stereotypical mold of the patriarchy and generating progress.

The Title IX website explains why the law is still relevant today:

At the college level, women now make up the slight majority of college students, but they are still more likely to be underrepresented in science and technology fields and in higher-earning occupations that will be critical to the United States’ success in a new global economy.  Despite the fact that girls often earn higher grades than boys, they still face barriers in school settings that inhibit them from expanding into all fields, especially those that are male-dominated.

Am I undercutting my gender and my country by being an English major? Maybe I could blame unintentional stereotyping by my elementary school teachers the shift in my interest to the humanities from STEM fields, but whatever the cause, the damage has been done. Certain aspects of science still interest me, but in a shallow, layman’s way. I read the Science section of the New York Times but could never see myself taking Chem 151 or going pre-med.

I think back to the days of high school, of upper-level math and science and of being outnumbered by males in my classes 5 to 1. Despite the fact that I found the material difficult and uninteresting, I became very fond of my elderly AP Calculus teacher. He was quiet but witty, and never told tasteless jokes for the amusement of the male majority of the class (unlike my Pre-Calc teacher the year before, who had described the X and Y-axes as “Mrs. X and Mr. Y,” and got us to remember them by telling us that “Mrs. X lies flat on her back because she’s a whorizontal line”). My AP Calc teacher never made me uncomfortable to be a girl in his class, and always called on the rest of us just as much as he did the boys. By the end of the year, I was happy to leave the class behind, but reluctant to part with him. At the end of our last class, he asked me if I was planning to take more advanced math classes in college, maybe go into engineering or medicine. Actually, he recommended that I do so.

“We need more women in these kind of fields. Don’t just be a History or an English major; that will never get you anywhere.”

I’m sorry, Mr. Northness.

I hope that we can reach some sort of cultural compromise, where a woman can feel comfortable taking part in education and careers in STEM fields without being viewed as some exotic, endangered species, and a woman (or any person) can be interested in the arts and humanities and not be condemned for wasting their education on something that “doesn’t matter in the real world.” I hope someday we can truly live up to Amherst’s mission of “expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level.” Because it’s “scholarly research AND artistic creation,” not “or.”

About Marie Lambert

Amherst's own Hazel Weatherfield, girl detective.

4 comments on “The Liberal Arts Dilemma

  1. Anonymous
    October 29, 2012

    Story of my life!!!!!

  2. Anonymous
    October 29, 2012

    “Am I undercutting my gender and my country by being an English major? … Certain aspects of science still interest me, but in a shallow, layman’s way.”

    This is exactly how I felt when I decided to switch my major from math to a major in the humanities! I felt like I was “giving up” in some way, and I was afraid of disappointing my high school math and science teachers who had encouraged me to pursue a STEM field. But the truth is, math just didn’t interest me as much anymore, and I was doing much better work in my other classes because I was more engaged in them.

    Just study whatever lights a fire under your ass. That’s why we all came to a liberal arts college in the first place. :)

  3. Matt DeButts
    October 29, 2012

    I don’t know if your post is prompted by the feature in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, but if not:

    http://chronicle.com/article/In-Terms-of-Gender/135304/?key=SGx0dFVkNCFDNy1qZG4QYzgAaCRoZRgjMSRDPysmblpRGQ%3D%3D

    http://chronicle.com/article/In-Terms-of-Gender/135290

    The second one is more interesting, but the first one is more relevant to your thoughts here. At any rate, I’d better get back to STEM homework. I wish I didn’t have to, but I’m too self-conscious to study Art History. . .

    • marielambert15
      October 30, 2012

      While I hadn’t read either of those articles before writing this post, thank you for linking to them. They both provide an interesting contextualization of the issues I brought up in my post.

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