And is it a big deal?
Have you ever complained to your friends about a low mark you’ve received in your Math class, only to have another student respond with “Oh, that mark is 10 percent higher than the highest mark in my East Asian studies class!” This probably immediately makes you feel like a jerk. However, the question that must immediately follows is how can that be?
At first glance, it doesn’t make much sense. The course average for MAT135 last year was a B- compared to EAS103 which was a C+. That’s only about an average 3 percent difference from 67-69 to 70-72. So if we do the math, we find an immediate problem. How does a 10 percent difference on a midterm or essay translate to only a 3 percent difference on overall grades?
Here is my hypothesis: the reason for the disparity between marks in the sciences and the humanities is that, while it is possible to get 100 on a math or science test if you know your stuff, the chance that someone can get 100% on a humanities essay is a lot lower—about the chance that quantum teleportation will move you a meter north.
How does that work? (And no, its not because science students are “inherently smarter” than a humanities student.) In fact, I would argue (self-deprecatingly) that the majority of humanities students are better off than those in science due to one thing: communication. Sure, while knowing the differences between Sn1, Sn2, E1, and E2 reactions make you sound smart, so does being able to refer to Thomas Hobbes in a debate.
However, in life outside of the university (a truly scary thought) which is more accessible? Being able to write a complex equation on a nearby non-existent whiteboard, or being able to seamlessly incorporate in-depth thoughts and ideas into a conversation? In fact, what is more common, a calculator or a conversation? Sure, each of us carries a calculator in our pocket by having a smart phone, and I’ll concede that over 1.4 billion phones were sold worldwide in 2015 alone. But think of it this way—there are over 7 billion people in the world. If only half of them talk to one other person for a day, that’s still 1.75 billion conversations being had in a single day. That’s more than 300 million more conversations than there are calculators being used and not everyone uses their calculator every day. Although, to be fair people don’t all cite Rousseau in their daily conversations either, but my point still stands.
I’m getting off track. Why is it easier to get perfect on a math or science midterm than to get perfect on a humanities essay? It’s because while in a math or science test, if the question asks for the final velocity of a ball, and gives you the force used on the stopped ball as well as its mass and the time, if you know the right equations, you can find the right answer—and you’re able to ensure that you get the right answer by showing your work and logic. However, if a writing prompt is something like, “discuss Rousseau’s social contract and its effects on right-wing nationalism,” then poor phrasing or grammatical errors can slash your mark. And, in addition, your marking TA might simply disagree with your ideas and continue to take off marks.
If this is the case, then why is the average difference between the arts and sciences so low? I think its because that this mark disparity isn’t as big of a deal as people make it out to be. Think of it this way, if you are a B student, it doesn’t mean that you’re any less smart than an A student. University has a frightful way of categorizing us by shoving everyone into a box , while in reality, actual “intelligence” is extremely hard to quantify. Sure, on a test you may or may not be able to remember the difference between Aristotle and Socrates but you know how to write a really good persuasive essay. I think that, in and of itself, may be why the mark disparity isn’t a huge deal. Sure, it’s easier to get a higher mark in sciences then in the arts, but, by that same logic, its quite easy to fail a math test you haven’t studied for. However, even if you haven’t studied for an English exam, you still know how to write an essay, so the barebones idea will still be there. Herein lies the answer, because where in a science major the average range of marks is generally from around 30-90, the average range of marks in a humanities course would be from 40-80. Same average, but wildly different “top” marks.
These results have been compiled through interviews of about fifty students in second year with about half in a science program and half in an arts program. However, due to my small sample size and bias due to myself being in a science major, take all of these numbers with a grain of salt.
At the end of the day, the mark disparity isn’t a huge deal and you don’t need to worry about it. Sure, it may sound like the science majors are doing better, but that’s only a very tiny percent of the population. In fact, most people have around the same average, regardless of major. In the end, anywhere you go, whether it be a job, grad school, or a different professional school, they aren’t going to look at students from other majors to see what programs achieved higher marks. In conclusion, sure, it exists on paper, but is it a huge deal? Not really.