The material excerpted here, with permission of the author, is part of an essay written for an admissions application when Sarah was a college senior. It is provided for its relevance for thinking about Science as Story Telling.

Abandoning the "War" Between Science and the Humanities: One Student's Experiences

Sarah Halter
Bryn Mawr College 2006

Why did I buy into the rivalry? Why did I nod whenever someone asserted the so-called impassible barrier between science and the humanities? I’ve known people who did well in both, and I was even one of those students, filling my high school schedule with AP sciences and SCAP English courses. Yet, I always told people that I sided with the humanities, not the sciences. I studied English literature and writing not only because I excelled there, but because science did not give me pleasure, I claimed. But now I don’t understand why I said this. Wasn’t balancing a long redox equation in chemistry fun for me? Didn’t I experience a thrill of success whenever I solved for x in a long math problem? Why did I buy into the idea that enjoying a science class precluded me from enjoying English?

I think I would have continued to believe in the impenetrability of the boundary between sciences and the humanities if not for a sex and gender course I attended last semester. During Playing with Categories: Re-doing the Politics of Sex and Gender, we read feminist literature and discussed gender theory for hours at a time. One class period in particular stands out, however, because during this class my professor brought in Paul Grobstein, a biology professor, to facilitate discussion. I think most college students have three or four class periods that really stay with them. Maybe it is the one in which she first understands a bit of poetry by T.S. Eliot or when she finally figures out how to derive an equation. For me, the class period in which we mixed a critical approach to sex and gender with an advanced discussion of biology will remain burned in my mind because this is the class during which I finally “got it.”

At the time, the professor told us that a biologist’s approach could aid us in understanding the complicated relationship between sex and gender, but since most of us were English students, we smiled and nodded, quietly grinding our teeth and readying ourselves for an insufferable onslaught of scientific babble. As I recount this, I can’t help but feel shame over my unreflective contribution to the “war” between science and the humanities.

As Professor Grobstein lectured, however, I slowly began to understand that he wasn’t just pitting chromosomes against gender theory. He was outlining the ways in which the mind works, and how we see the world, the way this perspective influences our thoughts, and suddenly my understanding of the brain and its inner workings fell into place with my understanding of gender theory. Gender constructs and feminist theory made sense not because I was setting them alongside biology but because I was looking at them together, with biology. Gender, theory, literature, biology and my thoughts rolled into one ball so that I wasn’t thinking about humanities in opposition to science – I was simply thinking about Professor Grobstein’s discussion point. As I absorbed myself in the lecture, the battle fell away, and I realized that I had left the “war” behind.

I wrote my final paper for this sex and gender course a few weeks after Professor Grobstein’s visit. I have never been as proud of a paper as I am of this one. Rather than serving only as a paper for a course, this essay turned into a study on a very focused subject. Sure, I used class materials in this paper, but I also pulled in material from other classes, such as a course I was taking in English masculinity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and a class called Here and Queer that I had taken a year ago. I also relied on the ideas I had formulated during Professor Grobstein’s visit. History, English, and science worked together for this paper, which emerged as a transmutation of all my schooling, all the things I had learned in my college career, and not just the result of one class. For the first time, I wrote as though I wasn’t just an English major. I was a student, a scholar.

My dad has been telling me to read Stephen Jay Gould for years, and after I told him about my change of heart during this sex and gender class, he insisted that I read Gould’s The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities. In this work, Gould addresses the gap and the tension between these two studies: “This conflict … became both silly and harmful long ago.” I like Gould’s characterization of the gap as harmful. For a society that valorizes those who can “multitask,” those who can juggle familial and professional life, and those who can balance work and play, our culture remains puzzlingly hesitant to merge these two worlds. We’re serving science and the humanities poorly by so often refusing to let them communicate. It feels like we’re only using half of our brain power and ignoring our potential by keeping these two areas of study apart.

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