Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 13, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

C.P. SNOW LIVES!....Ah, memories.....

Jeanne d'Arc links today to a Los Angeles Times feature story about the dreaded humanities requirement at Caltech, ground zero for geekdom here in sunny Southern California. As you can see from the fine sample of student journalism reproduced at the right, the Humanities Division (no "colleges" at Caltech!) has long occupied a sort of no man's land at Caltech, striving for respect but, as I wrote 26 years ago, always in fear that it will be reduced to "that most dreaded of entities: the service department."

Now, I never minded the humanities requirement myself, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who reads the copious output of this blog, but even back in 1977, when the male-female ratio was more like 10:1 (the Times says it's now about 2:1, which is actually pretty impressive progress) I don't recall that it was the subject of all that much complaining. That "20%" number the Times mentions amounts to a requirement that you take one humanities class per term, which most of us thought was not really all that onerous.

As Jeanne notes, her interest in this subject was piqued by a "dumb post insulting engineers" from last September. It wasn't dumb, in fact, but it was the post that first got me reading her blog and I wrote her an email agreeing that "An awful lot of engineers think that the hyper-rationality that works in science can also solve problems outside of science."

However, I then immediately took her to task for one-sidedness, and I stand by that. Grumble though they might, most Caltech students recognize the value of humanities classes, but the same cannot be said for their opposite numbers. In fact, I'd venture to say that most English Lit majors, for example, take the bare minimum number of math and science classes mandated by their university's breadth requirements usually not more than two or three "physics for poets" style classes and never set foot in a technically oriented class again. In an increasingly technical world, I think this is every bit as myopic and misguided as a belief that iambic pentameter is "useless" and therefore not worth studying.

Of course, we're not exactly breaking new ground with this discussion. After all, 1959 was 44 years ago, and how many of you reading this can describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Better get cracking!

POSTSCRIPT: And for those interested in geek terminology, a quick lesson:

  • As mentioned already, there are no "colleges" at Caltech, just "divisions."

  • No "dorms" either; they're called "houses." I was in Ruddock House (i.e., I was a "Rudd").

  • The salisbury steak patties served in the cafeteria are called "hockey pucks."

  • The famous Caltech pranks are called "RFs," short for "room fuck." The LA Times is too sensitive to tell you stuff like that.

  • It's "Caltech," not "Cal Tech."

  • As the Times correctly notes, students refer to themselves at "Techers," not "Techies."

UPDATE: On the other hand, Chad Orzel reminds us that there's also "Poetry for Physicists"....

Kevin Drum 11:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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