The interdisciplinary capstone: bridging science and humanities

As part of a series of humanities-related presentations, senior Greg Palermo’s Geneseo Recognizing Excellence, Achievement and Talent Day thesis attempted to bridge a gap between majors often competing for relevance and justification. As a double major in English and physics, Palermo has noticed animosity between the sciences and the arts, particularly regarding the legitimacy of humanities coursework and majors. His sassily-titled presentation “English and Physics are Totally Different, Right?” intended to point out the similarity of these majors and end the “academic tribalism” that pits different majors against each other.

“I’m making the case that [humanities] are more important and valuable than people think they are, and it’s the same relevance as the sciences,” Palermo said.

His presentation opened by discussing a crisis emerging in the humanities world, which is a decrease in its legitimacy. He points out that when people view it as an inferior major, it can be more than just an annoyance or petty competition. It can negatively affect employability and even funding for certain majors.

Humanities are “forced to justify the value and legitimacy of their work in a way the sciences don’t have to,” Palermo said.

To Palermo, the humanities are perceived to have two motives: to have a greater moral understanding of human nature and history and to appreciate the beauty and creativity of the greatest minds in history.

“The humanities are loftily removed from any sort of purpose,” he said. “It makes them more vocational and what I want to show is that none of these things individually are the adequate motivation to study anything.”

He explained a third, often overlooked facet of humanities: the skill set its majors receive in critical thinking and analysis.

“It’s humanistic study that’s engendering skills and giving you greater social awareness,” Palermo said.

A combination of these three aspects is a more complete definition of humanities, and Palermo asserts that the skills learned in majors such as English are useful and marketable.

“What we do all day isn’t just sit around all day and reading poems and reciting lines and saying, ‘Isn’t this pretty,’” he said.

In fact, he sees more similarities than differences between his physics and English classes.

“I want to close the disciplinary gap where there’s two people on two different sides thinking that what the other person is doing is completely unrelated to what they’re doing; in reality an English major uses algorithmic logic whether or not they are aware of it, and a physics major looks for patterns the same way an English major does,” he said.

He cited sources ranging from feminist authors, Newton’s Second Law and old Lamron articles, demonstrating the usefulness of interdisciplinary research and studies. His presentation is actually the forerunner to the book he is currently writing, which explores the similarities between English and physics as majors.

Palermo hopes to not only change the mental concept of arts and sciences as a dichotomy, but open doors to new interdisciplinary options, stating, “It’s not necessary that the frame will be interdisciplinary. It’s more that you can bring your background from one discipline to another.”