LETTER: Studying science was a tedious affair

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The Independent Online
From Professor Reginald Byron

Sir: Are the arts and social science subjects at university a softer option than science? Dr John Gosden (letter, 1 September) thinks so. Speaking from my own undergraduate experience in the Sixties, having studied physics and chemistry as well as classics and sociology, I did not find science to be harder, but I did find it more tedious.

Every concept, no matter how interesting, was immediately reduced to a set of mathematical operations in the evident belief, by my teachers, that this was the only truly scientific way to approach a subject. It was made plain that any branch of learning whose subject-matter could not be quantified had no claim to rigour and required no real, disciplined intelligence. As students, we were tested only on our ability to perform endless, routine measurements and calculations. We were never encouraged to think philosophically about the concepts we were dealing with, and only rarely asked to use much imagination. Nor were we ever invited to consider our social and moral responsibilities as scientists.

If attitudes among teachers of science in our schools and universities are still as parochial as Dr Gosden suggests, it is no wonder that new entrants are voting with their feet. Science is not harder; it is simply too narrowly mathematical and amoral, and thus unappealing to increasing numbers of young people who want to explore the rapidly globalising world in which they live. Their subject choices make it quite plain that they find the arts and social sciences provide interesting, challenging and intellectually satisfying answers to their questions. Careful readers of the recent UCAS clearing listings will have noticed there are very few places available in subjects such as English and history, and those places remaining in the "old" universities demand high A-level scores (typically 18 points), while there are vacancies in virtually every science and engineering subject in every university in the country, which can be entered with scores as low as eight or 10 points. This does not immediately suggest that science is harder than arts. Quite to the contrary, it might suggest that it is far easier to become a chemist than an art historian.

Yours faithfully,

Reginald Byron


2 September