“Well, I’m an engineer. So, you know, lots of work. It’s a tough life.”
Stress and sleep deprivation don’t do a whole lot for my tact. I raised my eyebrows. “Oh?”
“I mean, after you’re done with your thesis, you’re done, right? This is the only time that you non-engineers have a lot to do.”
My eyebrows inched higher. “Oh?”
“Well, we take a lot more classes than you do. It gets harder every year. It’s not like there’s just one hard stretch for us.” They were now hairline-level. “We’re always on a long hard stretch!”
First off, rule number one about interactions with seniors from March to May (I learned this the hard way last year): Do not trivialize The Thesis.
But this isn’t the first time — and it probably won’t be the last time — that I’ve encountered that sort of attitude at Princeton. Not all engineers or natural science majors demonstrate it, but there’s a definite category of them that look down on humanities majors and often social science majors, too. And it doesn’t strike me as a friendly sort of rivalry. It’s a distinct “I am much smarter than you, and I work much harder than you” kind of vibe.
Here’s the thing: I don’t pretend to be good at proofs, or at equations of any sort, or at calculations and experiments. I had to rely on a computer science major in my own field — philosophy — to explain the formulae in Bayesian confirmation theory to me. And that’s cool. It’s not my thing; I laughed at the irony of it and dismissed it. I have a great deal of respect for people who work with numbers and do all sorts of funky stuff with them. But it’s that sort of respect that I feel is missing in the engineers’ regard for classicists, philosophers, historians and students of language and religion. If an English major can’t prove that rule to you, a mechanical engineer probably can’t analyze that piece of literature. If a politics major can’t get the right answer out of those numbers, a molecular biology major probably can’t write as coherent a paper about the merits of different systems of government. We’re each good at different things, and each talent deserves the same respect.
When it comes to the actual workload — and I know I’m inviting some criticism here — I don’t think that the difference is as significant as it’s made out to be. For one thing, we have two years’ worth of independent work. That’s not an easy difference to dismiss. It is a huge drain on time, energy, sleep and effort. It sucks up whatever you put into it and then demands some more. By the time all four years are up, I would hazard a guess that the workload of all Princeton students is more or less evened out. Second, of course I would hate to do three problem sets in a week. No kidding. But would you prefer to do 400 pages of reading and a response paper? I thought not. You’re good at solving problem sets, so you chose them; I’m good at writing papers, so I chose those. We both chose Princeton, so we’re both being put through the wringer one way or another. To each his own.
Some also snidely remark that academic study in the humanities is a useless pursuit. Now, the humanities, simply put, are academic fields devoted to the study of the “human condition.” So it strikes me as a bit odd to dismiss this study as pointless, given that we’re all, you know, human.
There is intelligence and talent in creativity, logic, technical expertise, math, language, accuracy, imagination, thinking and building — we need it all in our world. Someone invents a new kind of weapon. Someone else reasons about the ethics of using it and the politics of owning it. And they reason about it in a building using a computer and an Internet connection and a pen. None of these fields work without the others. I wouldn’t argue that all humanities majors are smarter or more intellectual than all engineers. But I would argue that whether a student is majoring in the humanities or an engineering field is, all else equal, irrelevant to your assessment of his or her intelligence or how hard he or she works.
Two summers ago, I told an uncle back in Bombay that I was majoring in philosophy. I also mentioned that my cousin was a civil engineer. My uncle paused and thought for a moment with a perplexed look on his face. He eventually gave up, finally leaned in toward me and whispered, “But, Camille … I thought you were supposed to be much smarter than him?”
India is notorious for this sort of thing. If you’re not an engineer, a doctor or a scientist, you’re … well, dumb as a doornail, to be frank.
But I never expected that attitude from a Princeton student.
Camille Framroze is a philosophy major from Bombay, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.