The first time I was really struck by the divide between the arts and sciences was during a Leaving Cert Physics class. Our teacher was curious to see what we were hoping to do after secondary school, so he asked the class what courses they had applied for. Almost everybody in the room was hoping to do Science or Engineering, with one or two going into the health sciences. I was the odd one out who wanted to do English. Almost everybody in my school who wanted to go into the humanities stayed away from the sciences, except for the few who studied Biology because they thought it was an easy A.
For all of its flaws, the one thing I think the Leaving Cert does well is give students the choice of so many subjects in very different fields, so that a student could be doing a combination of, say, Spanish, Latin, Chemistry, Religion, Economics and Metalwork, provided their school offers all of those subjects. But it seemed like people for the most part chose subjects that led them into their particular course, often because their parents wanted them to study something ‘useful’ for the degree they wanted to do. At Trinity the divide between the two areas was even more apparent, with lecturers often joking about how arts and science students were not meant to be mixed. The split is nicely symbolised by the Arts Block and Hamilton being located on opposite ends of the campus.
Why do we have this divide between the arts and sciences at third level, compared to the students of previous eras? One issue is that there is now simply too much knowledge for one person to learn. Whereas once upon a time there could be a ‘Renaissance man’ like Leonardo Da Vinci who could become an expert in engineering, anatomy, art and more besides, there is now too much specialised knowledge available in each discipline for one person to be an expert in all of them. A student cannot study everything there is to know in multiple areas of knowledge, and so they must choose to focus on a particular subject. But this does not mean that a student can’t have a basic understanding of a variety of fields.
Another issue is that modern university degrees have become much more geared toward preparing students for the workplace, rather than being primarily centres for the advancement of knowledge and learning for their own sake. Whereas in the past the university was the preserve of a small, educated elite who were perhaps more inclined towards academia for its own sake, nowadays it is seen as an almost essential rite of passage to finding work in a crowded and competitive jobs market. A large portion of job training in our society has shifted from apprenticeships and other forms of on-the-job experience towards university degrees, with the result being that those degrees now have a narrower focus.
But is this narrowing of focus and division of the various areas of knowledge necessarily negative? I would argue that it is. In literature it is important to have at least some level of understanding about other areas of knowledge in order to comprehend any given book. To fully appreciate books written centuries ago it is necessary to know something about the history and cultural milieu of the time in which they were written; subjects like philosophy and theology have a huge bearing on the literature of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, (to give just two examples), and the scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century had a major impact on the literature of that era. All knowledge is interconnected and each area of study impacts on all of the others. Atomising knowledge into a large number of distinct subjects and creating a further divide between the humanities in one corner and the sciences in another gives us an artificial view of a world neatly separated into distinct, unrelated categories, a world which bears no resemblance to the one in which we actually live.
A university should aim to educate students and give them the tools to understand the world better. If students had more of an opportunity to study various different areas of knowledge at third level, they would be better placed to appreciate other disciplines and perhaps gain new perspectives and insights on their own specialty area by seeing how it relates to other branches of academia. They would also be exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking that they would not necessarily come across in their own discipline, and would hence be able to gain a better understanding of the world around them.
A science student who took history classes might gain new insight into the real-world consequences of scientific research, whether it be the positive effects on society of the discovery of penicillin and vaccines or the incredible destructive power of chemical and nuclear weapons. By taking literature classes they might see how science impacted the popular imagination in earlier eras, and indeed how science has in turn been influenced by the ideas imagined in science fiction. An art, film or literature student might derive inspiration for a new work by studying the incredible intricacy and beauty of the natural world through science classes. And studying a new language always has the benefit of being able to engage with academic research from other parts of the world, whether in the sciences or the humanities. These are just a few examples.
Many liberal arts degrees in the US start out their programs like this, offering a wide array of subjects from both the humanities and sciences in the first year or two and allowing students to narrow their range as they go through college, eventually to focus in one area. This system has its disadvantages, such as the longer length of time it takes to specialise in an area, but it also has the benefit of giving students a more comprehensive education and giving them the opportunity to sample different disciplines and to see where they might like that specialty to be. To be fair, Trinity and other Irish universities have made efforts to address this, offering the chance to take a module in another department through the Broad Curriculum program, but it is still only a limited amount of interaction with a different department.
There is probably not a huge appetite amongst the college leadership to make more radical changes to the way College functions, given the cutbacks taking place and the current culture of university being seen as a springboard to get into the workforce, but that needn’t hold students back. There is no reason why a science student can’t pick up and read a Shakespeare play, a Dickens novel, or a book about medieval history. Likewise an arts student can always try and give a popular science book a read or pay a visit to some of the Science Gallery exhibits. There might not be a degree on offer for doing so, but nonetheless it’s worth trying something new. Universities might keep science and arts students in their separate boxes, but they can’t confine our curiosity and hunger for knowledge to one small specialty, unless we allow them to.
Illustration: Natalie Duda