It’s Not Rocket Science

Times Staff Writer

William Deverell’s freshman history course is titled 19th Century America, but it could be called Revenge Against the Nerds.

Deverell teaches at the California Institute of Technology. Many of his students are walking calculators who breezed through high school algebra while numbers-shy classmates suffered.

At Caltech, the tables are turned. For all the English majors out there forced to take physics, Deverell’s eight-book class offers some payback. It is part of a rigorous humanities requirement for the Pasadena institution’s 950 undergraduates. Every budding rocketeer, every genome mapper in the making must complete a four-year program of history and literature, philosophy and languages, music theory and art studies.

The writing-heavy load is coupled with an equally stiff regimen in the social sciences. Together, they account for 20% of the units needed for a bachelor of science degree.


The idea, a common one in tech education, is to breed well-rounded graduates -- geeks steeped in the Greeks. But many Caltech students aren’t sold on it. And those who are barely have the time for it.

“There’s a little grumbling,” Deverell said.

Or more than a little. The professor had just finished a lecture on the Adams-Jefferson letters, glimpses at life in the fledgling republic, from 1812 to 1826. Once he moved out of earshot, several of his young charges complained that dissecting the correspondence of two cotton gin-era presidents wasn’t what they had in mind when they enrolled at the top-ranked tech school.

“If it were up to us, we wouldn’t be taking this class,” said Kevin Trotter, 19, a computer science major. “We wouldn’t take any humanities courses.... If it weren’t for this, we would never have to use Microsoft Word, because we’d never have to write any reports.”

Chris Hiszpanski, 18, who is studying electrical engineering -- “double E,” as he put it -- said the humanities work jolted him when he arrived at Caltech. “I didn’t know I had to take four years of this,” he said. “On some level I guess it really does benefit us. But I don’t know how.”

Other Techers do know how. They say the humanities classes are welcome respites from the school’s seven-day-a-week labor of “problem sets” -- assignments in biomolecular dynamics, quantum mechanics, geometric optics and the like. These students endorse the administration’s line that a scientist versed in Plato, a scientist capable of penning a jargon-free phrase -- if only to craft a readable grant proposal -- is a better scientist.

“It’s important to be a good writer,” said Lea Hildebrandt, 18, a chemical engineering freshman hurrying to class. “The humanities are part of being a whole person. It’s actually relaxing to study something other than science.”

Melissa Strausberg, 21, a junior in planetary science, said the humanities are her “release.” She also observed that women embrace them more than men do. Men outnumber women at Caltech 2 to 1.


“In my classes, all the women enjoy the humanities, and all the men don’t,” said Strausberg, who was sitting on a bench outside. “Perhaps it’s one of those ‘nurture’ issues, where women were raised to go into the humanities and men were raised to go into the sciences.”

Some men bristle at her analysis. “I like the humanities,” said David Griswold, 19, a computer science sophomore. “Without the humanities requirement, our minds would atrophy from too much science.”

But even the biggest fans of the humanities, male and female, say they often give them short shrift because of the sleep-robbing demands of their tech classes. And they agree that if students were to vote on the humanities, a majority would probably choose to eliminate or reduce the requirement.

Most U.S. colleges and universities accredited to confer tech degrees prescribe a strong dose of the humanities for science and engineering students. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, whose seal of approval is carried by 2,500 departments at 550 schools, requires that undergraduates spend at least 12% of their time in humanities and social science classes.


“A degree should be a broadening experience, and not just professional training,” said Dan Hodge, the board’s accreditation director.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the humanities and social sciences requirement is 25% of the undergraduate curriculum.

“The students say, ‘There’s too much reading, too much writing -- you’re murdering us,’ ” said Philip Khoury, MIT’s humanities dean. “We want kids who will win the Nobel Prize in science, but we also want to produce leaders. And there’s no way they can be leaders without the big picture.” By that, he means without a grasp of the world outside the laboratory, in the realm where gene engineering is as much about ethics as it is about science.

“Our kids understand the science and technology,” said Khoury, a historian. “Now, they have to understand how they impact our lives.”


Jean Ensminger, an anthropologist who chairs Caltech’s humanities and social sciences division, preaches the same sermon.

“We expose students to things they wouldn’t ever have sought out themselves,” she said. “The challenge is to grab them intellectually. They didn’t get here by being uncurious. The trick is to tap into that curiosity.”

Science isn’t foreign to Ensminger’s division. The humanities program includes courses in the history and philosophy of science. And classes in social sciences test “game theory” predictions with lab-like experiments in economic and political behavior.

“Throw a [human] problem out there, and before long the students will start coming up with a hypothesis,” Ensminger said.


Caltech Provost Steven Koonin survived the humanities drill as a Caltech physics major more than 30 years ago. “It was a good thing to do,” he said between bites of a salad at the Athenaeum, the dark-paneled faculty club. Albert Einstein presided over its 1931 dedication.

Koonin said he realizes that many aspiring Einsteins find the humanities a pain. “You say to them the usual thing, that doesn’t carry much weight,” he added with a laugh. “You say, ‘Trust me, it’s good for you.’ ”

It’s been good for alumnus Christopher Ho, who uses his Caltech-honed writing skills almost every day as an engineer for Boeing Satellite Systems.

“When you write a memorandum or a procedure ... you can’t always do it with very technical sentences,” said Ho, a 1992 mechanical engineering grad.


The Torrance resident designs algorithms that control the attitude of satellites. “The humanities can really help you in your career and in your personal life,” he said. “Even if it’s just writing letters to old friends.”

The humanities requirement dates to the 1920s, when Caltech grew out of the old Throop Polytechnic Institute, which opened in 1891 as an arts and crafts college. In the early years, the humanities at science-oriented universities were regarded as finishing-school material -- a dash of Fitzgerald here and Freud there, enough to polish one’s parlor manners.

“Their role was to civilize the engineer,” said Khoury, a historian. “It was the wrong approach.”

Today, the tech powerhouses compete with the best liberal arts institutions for humanities and social sciences professors. And the performance expectations for students have risen accordingly.


MIT boasts a renowned department in linguistics and philosophy. Caltech is celebrated for its research in economics and political science.

But trig triumphs. Only 40 Caltech undergraduates are majoring in the social sciences this year, and most have second majors in science or engineering. Just three students are majoring solely in the humanities.

One is Jennifer Caron, 23, who recently completed her thesis for a degree in science, ethics and society. She switched her major from biology as a sophomore.

“I found the sciences very difficult,” she said, speaking from a Quaker peace conference in North Carolina. “There were plenty of [humanities] reading assignments I didn’t get done because of my problem sets. Students have to triage their time.”


Deverell appreciates that. He knows his courses aren’t what attract students to Caltech. But he is passionate about his mission, and it shows in the classroom. The 40-year-old professor was animated as he discussed the Adams-Jefferson letters.

“These are beautiful letters,” he told his students. “I want you to feel that period.”

The freshmen posed few questions and took few notes. As the hourlong class wound down, several craned their necks to watch the clock by the door.

Afterward, they praised Deverell as a lecturer, but said his course remained dead last on their priority list.


“We try to look for the easiest way out for the work in the humanities,” Trotter said. “If we have a report due Tuesday, we’ll start writing it on Monday night. We’ll stop right at the minimum word count.”

“Yeah, we’ll check the word count every 15 minutes,” said Hiszpanski.

Juniors and seniors seem more accepting of the humanities burden.

“The older students get used to it,” said David Armet, 20, a junior sitting at a campus cafe with senior Jay Carlton, 21. Both are mechanical engineering majors. Carlton, who was thumbing through a robotics text, said he felt sorry for the humanities professors his freshman year.


He recalled a poetry class in which the lecturer asked for examples of odes: “The answers we gave were ‘electrode’, ‘cathode’, ‘anode’ and ‘diode.’ ”