Intellectual Vitality or Intellectual Insecurity?

Intellectual Vitality or Intellectual Insecurity?

“I swear I spend ten times as many hours on my 3-unit math class as I do on my 5-unit history class. No wonder my humanities friends have time to go out so often.”

“You’re so thoughtful for a CS major. Most CS majors I talk to have nothing interesting to say about anything non tech-related.”

“I just don’t respect people who think about problem sets all day as much as people who spend their days thinking about stuff like philosophy.”

I recently overheard all of these comments at Stanford. Despite Stanford’s love of liberal education, interdisciplinary academic programs, and efforts to bridge the divide between “techies” in STEM-related fields and “fuzzies” in the humanities and social sciences, it is common — and largely socially acceptable — for students to stereotype each other based on academic specialty.

Techies tend to perceive classes in the humanities and social sciences as less demanding than those in the hard sciences or engineering. Many techies regard the social sciences as less logically rigorous than the hard sciences; it is impossible to prove a theory of international relations or an interpretation of a poem as empirically as a theorem in physics. I often hear techie friends refer to non-STEM courses as “filler classes” — a low-commitment way to increase their quarterly unit counts, pad their GPAs, and fulfill WAYS requirements.

Similarly, many fuzzies at Stanford appear to view their disciplines as more intellectually significant than those in STEM. “Fuzzies” spend their academic lives discussing societal challenges, reading renowned texts, and contemplating the human condition, activities which many consider to be more profound and more meaningful than solving equations or writing code. Furthermore, because students with technical degrees tend to have more lucrative job prospects, fuzzies often assume that techies are at least partly motivated by monetary incentives rather than solely by intellectual fervor. Fuzzy subjects, on the other hand, are thought of as more intellectually pure. A popular post on “Things Overheard at Stanford” captures these attitudes perfectly: “I feel like CS is the new bartending. I’ll make money during the day and write my novel at night.”

Although the divide between the hard and soft sciences, and its associated stereotypes, are not unique to Stanford, they are likely strengthened by Stanford’s intense admissions process and academic atmosphere. Upon matriculation, Stanford repeatedly relays to students that we were admitted because of our intellectual vitality. Consequently, intellectual vitality and academic success are an integral part of what Stanford stands for as an institution, as well as how Stanford students view themselves.

Stanford students view intelligence as proof that they belong here. It was easy for most of us to feel smart when we were at the top of our high school classes. But at Stanford, surrounded by equally high achievers, we seek to cling to any evidence that we remain intellectually dominant. Highlighting one’s own academic superiority over students of other disciplines is an easy way to do so.

Perhaps more worryingly, students who are accustomed to viewing themselves as “smart” find it more difficult to take intellectual risks. A disproportionate number of Stanford students seem scared of feeling unintelligent or struggling to grasp a concept that comes naturally to others in the classroom. As a result, rather than pushing ourselves to take difficult classes beyond our comfort zones, we are more likely to devote ourselves to subjects in which we are either talented or already have some foundation. I’ve heard many fuzzies say that they just “can’t do numbers,” or that they never plan to touch a CS class after taking 106A. Similarly, techies often express distaste at the idea of writing a non-technical paper, or roll their eyes at the unempirical nature of social science theories.

Stanford’s intimate relationship with Silicon Valley exacerbates this divide. Surrounded by billion-dollar tech companies, venture capital firms, and “disruptive innovation,” Stanford students inevitably notice and glorify the successes of our computer science and engineering departments. Because Stanford students can so clearly see how Silicon Valley’s innovations have affected populations worldwide, many students prioritize gaining practical skills to make make a concrete impact on the world. This simultaneously fuels engineering students’ sense of superiority and confidence about the social significance of their work, as well as fuzzies’ aim to compensate by emphasizing their intellectual superiority.

It is true that plenty of students work to bridge Stanford’s techie-fuzzy divide. Indeed, interdisciplinary majors such as Symbolic Systems and Science Technology and Society are proof of this. But the majority of students who identify as either techie or fuzzy, but not the other, will likely remain divided due to their profound desires to prove their intellectual worth. Though Stanford’s emphasis on intellectual vitality is valuable, it can also limit our intellectual growth and respect for unfamiliar disciplines.

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