Humanities have a place, even at Caltech

When Christina Kondos receives her bachelor’s degree at Caltech’s commencement Friday, she will represent a tiny and little-known minority at the prestigious science and engineering campus in Pasadena.

Kondos is the only one in her graduating class of 247 to have majored in humanities or social sciences — economics and history in her case — without double-majoring in science, math or engineering.

Since 2008, only a dozen Caltech students have done the same, and they received bachelor of science degrees because Caltech doesn’t offer a bachelor of arts, campus officials said.

Science, of course, rules at Caltech, but it doesn’t eliminate the likes of James Joyce or Immanuel Kant.

Along with the notoriously tough math, physics, chemistry and biology courses, all Caltech undergraduates must take what amounts to a humanities or social science class every term. Some science students question the relevancy of such classes as literature, philosophy, political science and the arts, but administrators say those are crucial.

“The goal is to produce science and engineering leaders. How can you lead if you can’t communicate and don’t understand the world? Students have to know how to write, how to communicate and be able to deal with the bigger populations,” said Jonathan Katz, a political scientist and statistician who chairs Caltech’s humanities and social sciences division.

Kondos came from Texas to Caltech to study molecular biology, realized she didn’t much enjoy lab work and switched to math. Then she became more interested in economics and history and briefly considered transferring to pursue those disciplines at another college. She decided to stay at Caltech for the small classes, top-notch professors and bright classmates. She also became active in campus theater productions.

“I like where math and science and history and social science all connect,” said Kondos, 21. “You can be in a history class and talk about running a regression on certain institutional variables and everybody knows what you are talking about, which is great.”

Her history thesis used statistics to examine Soviet policy changes on birth control and abortion. She soon will teach high school algebra with the Teach for America program and later may pursue law or economics degrees.

This year, 22 of her classmates completed enough extra courses to add a humanities or social science major to science or math degrees. Such double majors still must take mandated classes on the more popular left-brain curriculum; so their dual-degree path “is both unusual and in some sense incredibly difficult,” Katz said.

Sixteen of them double-majored in a program called business, economics and management. That is an increasingly popular option among young inventors and Internet whizzes who hope to crack the financial markets. Six others added majors in English, history, economics or political science — subjects that professors say tend to have more of a statistical slant at Caltech than at liberal arts colleges.

Nate Morison, for example, majored in chemical engineering and English, balancing labwork with novels by Melville and Twain. Literature, he said, was a welcome escape from his other courses and provided “a skill set that involves a lot more writing and a lot more thinking about language.” The 22-year-old from Ohio, whose English thesis tackled 19th century Romantic poetry, soon will be working in a technical job for a healthcare software firm.

Literature led to intangibles that engineers often avoid. “A lot of the things I’ve read have dealt a lot with the context of mortality and with issues of what happens when you die. I don’t think I would have thought quite as much about that if I were taking only science classes,” he said.

Last year, Jasmine Sears graduated with a rare Caltech degree in English in part because health problems prevented her from finishing a double major in applied physics. Sears, 22, still embraced science and now is enrolled in a doctoral program in optics at the University of Arizona.

Having a Caltech degree in English, she said, surprises many people and contradicts a stereotype that scientists don’t like humanities.

Current senior Thomas Harris of Virginia said majoring in history and mechanical engineering helped him decide what he did not want to do: work in weapons development. History classes showed the brutal impact of inventions like gunpowder, and his history thesis was about “Greek fire,” an incendiary projectile used by sailors in the Middle Ages.

“Studying history gave me a wider perspective on what my personal actions should be,” said Harris, who landed a quality-control engineering job in medical technology.

Among the most popular Caltech humanities professors is Warren Brown, whose courses in medieval history, knighthood and the Vikings might have life lessons for students entering the battlefields of 21st century business and academia.

“These kids are going to become scientists, engineers and mathematicians, and they are going to move out into a world that often doesn’t understand what they do, doesn’t understand why it is important or tries to manipulate what they do for financial or political reasons,” Brown said after a recent lecture about the 11th century Norman invasion of Britain. “These kids have to know they are moving out into a human society and have to understand how human society works.”

English professor Cindy Weinstein, who oversees Caltech humanities, said she has seen a rise in the number of students co-majoring or minoring in English over the last few years. Medical schools, an increasingly popular next step, especially like such well-rounded students, she said.

Math majors can excel in English since “their ability to prove an argument and marshal evidence is just spectacular,” Weinstein said. “They wouldn’t have gone to Caltech unless both sides of their brains were working at a very high level.”