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Condescending science

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 22, 2010 03:39 PM

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A columnist for the Harvard Crimson asks: Just how intellectually incurious do science professors think English or history majors are? Quite incurious indeed, to judge from the cutesy-wutesy titles that they bestow on courses aimed at non-majors.

"A course that could easily have been called 'Concepts and Case Studies in Biology' gets
dubbed 'The Molecules of Life' instead," writes Adrienne Y. Lee, who also bridles at "Science of the Physical Universe 22: The Unity of Science: From the Big Bang to the Brontosaurus" and "Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning 14: Fat Chance."

There's nothing wrong with making courses for non-majors less rigorous or specialized than courses designed for majors, Lee says:

When I’m trying to get through 600 pages of reading a week and write five papers a semester, I simply don’t have time for a four-hour chemistry lab and lengthy lab reports. However, having taken science courses throughout grade school, I have enough science background to know that DNA contains genetic information and that yes, everything is made of atoms.

When humanities departments offer general survey courses, she notes, they give them respectable titles like "Western Ascendancy: The Mainsprings of Global Power from 1600 to the Present."

"It isn’t called 'The West: Why We’re Awesome' just to attract the attention of non-history buffs."


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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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