September 23, 2018 | ° F

Liberal arts inferiority complex

Below is a conversation between myself, a liberal arts major, and Eisha Chopra, an aspiring physician and pre-med student:

Eric Knecht: Eisha, we're seniors. How did this happen? I still remember breaking into a sweat searching for Hickman Hall on Douglass campus and thinking that "Nature of Politics" required serious attention. Arriving late to class meant sitting at broken desks, but at least back then you could get one. Pretty soon, I imagine they will hold the survey courses in the football stadium, but I suppose at least then the expansion will serve a long-term purpose. In any case, we've taken very different academic paths here on the Banks, and since it's our last year, I thought it would be nice to reflect on why we chose our fields. But more to the point, let's be blunt: Why do you hold such disdain for us liberal arts majors? There is always a pronounced sense of superiority in your voice when you proclaim that you are studying pre-med. I suppose I could just as pompously refer to myself as "pre-law," but that would be analogous to announcing that I am "pre-employment," it doesn't actually provide meaningful insight about anything I do. Are pre-med students really just that much more intelligent? Or, are they simply too afraid to pursue subjects that interest them because the direct connection to employment is one step removed? I know you may find biology exciting, but let's keep this discussion to regular students.

Eisha Chopra: Eric, I'm not too sure myself how senior year suddenly dawned upon us. It seems as though we just graduated high school, and now I find myself wondering how I'm going to become a productive member of society in a few short months. Though, we do get to live in a student "bubble" for a few more years — then comes the magic of graduate school. But you sound a little jaded about school, and more than a little defensive about the path that you chose. Why do liberal arts majors feel so slighted? After all, we attend a liberal arts school, so we "pre-medical" students are the minority. We're certainly the butt of plenty of "overachieving nerd" jokes — I'm sure that whenever someone sees me lugging around a cell biology textbook on the A bus, they automatically think "loser." Most of the time, we're laughing at ourselves for how crazy we must seem.

But I've gotten a little ahead of myself here. Let me clarify a common misconception first — pre-medicine is not actually a major. It's just a group of prerequisites required to apply to medical school. Most people say they're pre-med because saying "cellular biology and neuroscience" or "molecular biology and biochemistry" just takes too long, and some people don't know what "CBN" is. Surely you don't always mention your triple major whenever anyone asks what you're studying. But trust me, when I am so inclined to be thorough, I mention my liberal arts major and minor with as much superiority. Yes, I have those too. I'm not so haughty so as to reject the magic of a Rutgers psychology major as a grade point average booster.

But you ask, why do we feel that we're superior? For starters, science majors take almost double the amount of classes that most liberal arts majors do and — at least in comparison to my psychology classes — much harder classes at that. We're expected in those classes to absorb an inhuman amount of information and be able to regurgitate it on command, so yes, when I'm in an "Abnormal Psychology" and someone asks what a gene is, my first thought is wondering how they got into college. I can't remember the last time I saw a liberal arts student spending an entire week (literally) at the library like I have to for exams. Actually, I don't even know if some liberal arts majors know where the library is.

Pre-med students are taught to be cocky because we're constantly pitted against each other — only the most dedicated (or masochistic) will apply to medical school after being beaten down for the better part of four years. We're constantly made to feel that only the best and brightest can make it, so when you score two points higher than the kid sitting next to you in "Organic Chemistry," you think you're a genius, when actually it doesn't mean anything in terms of intelligence. Beyond that, pre-med classes are like an extreme version of "Survivor": three-fourths of everyone you meet at freshmen orientation say that they're pre-med, but by senior year, there are only three or four of that group that still make that claim. Actually, it seems that pre-med is the go-to option that everyone picks before realizing that they need to decide on a real career. So, shouldn't pre-med students feel slighted that we are either thought of as a) elitists or b) one step removed from the "undecided" track?

Eric Knecht: Elitists, yes — but undecided, I'm not quite sure. I suppose my point was that there is a built-in bias of perception when most people think of science and math majors vs. liberal arts majors. I myself do this. When someone tells me they are majoring in psychology, I automatically split them into one of two categories: aspiring doctor or Dance Marathon captain. And when someone tells me they are majoring in communications, I fail to even bother. It shouldn't be this way.

The liberal arts could and should be a more respected path for undergraduates to pursue, especially here at the University. Having a fluid understanding of the world and a broad range of knowledge on academic subjects yields important skills. It can make you a strong writer (Targum articles not included), an eloquent speaker (you can use words such as masochistic), a critical thinker, and perhaps most importantly, an interesting person (history majors excepted). These are skills that carry over. The vast majority of tasks required by jobs are learned on-site. This means that many times it's more important to be an impressive person, rather than having a specific technical skill. But beyond this, individuals who study subjects they are passionate about — yes Eisha, even if it is biology — tend to do far better while in school.

The problem with this romantic version of liberal arts, however, is that it is not the version we have at Rutgers. Many liberal arts degrees require a mere 33 credits, or 11 courses; finishing up a triple major and completing junior year can be interchangeable ideas. As you note, however, many science majors require up to 80 credits, and demand that students take seven or eight courses per term. In this sense, the liberal arts inferiority complex is somewhat deserved.

Rutgers should change this. There should be greater parity between degree

programs, whether you are studying molecular biology or evolutionary anthropology. This does not mean that liberal arts should entail 87 degree credits, but incredibly low requirements invariably yield incredibly low expectations and standards. In fact, seemingly anything and everything difficult in the realm of liberal arts is made optional or watered down. If you can't do basic arithmetic, you can opt to take "Math for the Liberal Arts." If you can't write coherent sentences, you can take exam-based classes. If you can't take exams, you can take writing-based classes. If you can't articulate your point of view, you can hide in large lecture halls. And if you can't do any of these things, you can still major in communications.

It's difficult to be proud of what you study when you're an economics major in class with students who couldn't make the business school, or a history major in class with pre-med students who need a "GPA booster," as you mention. Perhaps I do simply have a liberal arts inferiority complex, but sometimes our University doesn't make it much better.

Eric Knecht is a Rutgers College senior majoring in economics and history. His column, "Unfair and Unbalanced," runs on alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes feedback at Eisha Chopra is a Rutgers College senior majoring in cell biology & neuroscience and psychology.


Eric Knecht

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