Intermediate Form

Hard and Soft Majors

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In yesterday's Newsday, a columnist named Fern Kupfer wrote a column encouraging people to choose to major in subjects such as english, and general liberal arts. I think that this is bad advice, as I think that majoring in "soft" subjects such as english leaves out an important lesson that is taught by "hard" subjects such as science, engineering, math, and computer science.

Before I give this lesson, however, let me just respond to her motivation for writing the column:

Today, many parents want their children to major in business or accounting - something practical that will result in a real job with health insurance and a pension plan. To take courses in marketing or management rather than literature or language. Many parents envision the university as a kind of trade school. And schools wooing new admissions often comply.

I can't respond directly to this, as I've never been in business or accounting classes. The closest I've come is a single course in macroeconomics. However, being a CS major, and knowing people in science, math, and engineering, I do feed qualified to talk about the difference between the majors Kupfer recommends and the hard majors, majors that are grounded in large bodies of knowledge.

These hard majors aren't just preparation for a trade. At least in Computer Science, we are provided with a large variety of problems, many of which we are unlikely to encounter in the real world. (How many people write compilers, anyway?) The purpose of this is to build the sort of problem-solving skills that allow one to address a wide range of problems. This is the advantage a CS major (from a reasonable school) has over someone who is simply certified in a single program.

Kupfer writes:

But industries change. Start-ups go bust. "What's hot" became "what's not" almost overnight.

What never changes is the need for smart young people. Bright-eyed graduates who can think clearly and critically, who can adapt and grow, no matter what the job entails. Which makes the case - again and again, no matter how capricious the needs of the modern world - for a solid, liberal arts education. My husband and I encouraged our daughters to take religion and philosophy and political science and even women's studies.

A major in a hard subject does have to know far more domain-specific facts, compared to the major in a soft subject. But this doesn't really limit flexibility. While a math major may be loathe to take a job that doesn't allow him to make use of all of the knowledge he learned, it's unlikely that he'll be any worse at that job than the english major who never learned any math. They'll both, of course, be playing catch-up to someone who majored in the job's field, but that's to be expected.

There is an advantage that hard subject majors have that's lacking in students who are only educated in soft subjects. Majoring in a hard subject teaches a student that there are answers that are correct, and answers that are incorrect, regardless of how well a person argues for a particular answer.

What unites the hard majors is that they all have a base of knowledge that can be used to determine if a statement is correct. This base can be derived from nature, as is done in science and engineering. It can simply be constructed by man, as is the case in math. Computer Science is a special case, as we have an essentially artificial construct (the computer) that is somewhat shaped by physical laws. The essence of a hard major was probably best summed up by humorist Dave Barry, when he wrote:

if you write in your exam book that carbon and hydrogen combine to form oak, your professor will flunk you. He wants you to come up with the same answer he and all the other chemists have agreed on. Scientists are extremely snotty about this.

Compare this to the soft majors, such as english. In these majors, the ability to argue a case is generally prized over the contents of the case itself. While this tends to produce people who can communicate with great style and eloquence, it teaches people to focus on this to the exclusion of the actual content of the argument. In the hard subjects, where a correct result that is barely coherent is considered to be better than a magnificently phrased incorrect result.

That's not to say that all people who major in the soft subjects are incapable of telling right from wrong, far from it. But, at the same time, it could be useful in explaining why the anti-war protests were sponsored by the sociology department.

Kupfer writes:

Although it's easy to make fun of intellectuals as "eggheads" without knowledge of the real world, habits of mind will continue to serve us well as we attempt to seek beauty in an age of increasing vulgarity and truth in troubled times.

As I very rarely see people making fun of professors in the hard subjects (at least, not in the same way they do the softer subjects), this seems to be a defense of the soft subjects. It's a strange remark, anyway. I don't see why one's education should be focused on seeking beauty, even in an age of truth. I'd rather have people who are able to seek out the truth and work within it's bounds. That's a skill that's taught in hard majors, one that gives students in those majors an advantage.

- Tom | permalink | changelog | Last updated: 2003-08-20 15:59

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Posted on Thursday, August 21, 2003 by Chris:

He wasn't saying that we need to seek beauty in this age of truth, but to seek beauty in an age of vulgarity (a statement which says quite a lot about the author that he believes those contrasting), and also to seek truth in troubled times. I.e. that learning to deconstruct milton will enable you to find the truth in these current, troubled times.

Rather hubristic, I think. It's also somewhat telling that English majors are generally though of as effete and ineffective, not as egg-heads.

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