Something I love to do, especially as a college student, is ask classmates why they chose their majors. People passionate about their major tend to say the same thing: the universe revolves around their subject. Physics friends, for example, often say something about the “laws of the universe.” Math friends speak of the “universal language.” Econ friends speak of the “perfect” social science, and then there are dreaded English majors, like me. We often claim something like “science is heartless, but human is the essence of the humanities.” Then we always say something about “the human condition.”
I hate the artificial “science versus humanities” divide. All I can say is that I’m grateful for my dad, who is a mathematician. Most self-proclaimed “literary folks” find math dull and uncreative, but I am grateful to have grown up around someone with a passion for numbers. As a result, I see incredible beauty and elegance in math, where I almost certainly wouldn’t have otherwise (unfortunately, nurture, not nature: I inherited the appreciation but not the aptitude for math).
Of course, not all “literary folks” are so narrow-minded, and the same is true for scientists. But I think it’s a crutch when writers say they failed algebra because they were “too literary” for numbers. There is a difference between making excuses and acknowledging our weaknesses. I’ve finally learned that failing algebra is not funny nor evidence of literary talent. It’s embarrassing!
There are very practical grounds for learning subjects other than your own. Most influential thinkers did not confine themselves to one subject – many flourished, in fact, because they were well-rounded. Bertrand Russell, one of my favorite writers – essayist, philosopher, mathematician, social activist, winner of the Nobel Prize, among many titles – attributes his concise and witty language to a math background. He writes in “My Mental Development” that it was at Cambridge, where he found “a group of contemporaries… interested in many things outside their academic work – poetry, philosophy, politics, ethics, indeed the whole world of mental adventure,” where he began to thrive. Of course, likely he could discuss such a wide range of topics because he was brilliant to begin with. But there’s no doubt that leaving our mental comfort zones does great things – we make connections, the best possible training for metaphors.
To use a metaphor, in fact, exposure to different disciplines is like travel. You can stay in one place forever and be happy, but a change of pace brings invaluable perspective. We can start by learning stuff somewhat similar to our natural mindsets – to get really into the metaphor, it’s like going to a different state. But if you really want an experience, leave your hemisphere and try literature/science – whatever is the “opposite” of your subject, though, again I hate that binary, since people psych themselves out of things they could very well be good at.
In a final metaphor: like with real people, disciplines become more beautiful when you appreciate them. I think we owe it to each other to know what the “other side” might be studying. At the very least, know that failing math does not make you more literary.