The imbalance between the varied list of math and science classes and meager amount of English or language courses is disappointing, to say the least. As I thumb through my curriculum guide, STEM courses take up a staggering 21 pages. And while there are many humanities courses offered as electives, the core English curriculum list tops off at five pages (though it could probably be four if the spacing were a tad more economical).
Fortunate is the student with a passion for mathematics, for in senior year he or she can choose from 10 different math courses, ranging anywhere from AP Statistics to AP Calculus to AP Micro/Macroeconomics. In contrast, the English student chooses between AP Language, AP Literature and whatever extraneous side dish the English department decides to offer up for the next few years (right now, it’s a full-year class on Shakespeare, though it’s anyone’s guess what will be available two years from now, and two years after that).
However, the disproportionate course offerings begin much earlier than senior year; this imbalance pervades into the middle school, too. For freshmen, the pickings are slim when it comes to English courses. There is practically no advanced track for English students. No, not until junior year can the English student flex his or her skills in close reading, analysis and discussion and take on an honors course. That’s four years of regular level English class purgatory before the literature fanatic can even demonstrate an interest in academic English. Twelve months later, APs stumble into the realm of possibility, conspicuously late, disoriented and unshaven, mumbling, “Is it senior year already? … Alright, alright; I’m here; take me; I’m here.”
Meanwhile, the STEM-leaning freshman can take his or her very first honors courses and be on the road to an AP in the subsequent year or two. If course availability is imagined as trees, with seventh grade as the base and senior year at the canopy, then math and science are lush, blooming maples. For these trees, it is springtime, and their Advanced Placements quickly begin to blossom. Meanwhile, the English, language and history trees are the imported palms along Sunset Boulevard.
This lopsidedness not only limits avenues for humanities student to refine their abilities and interests; it can result in drastic differences in the GPAs of otherwise similar STEM kids and humanities students. Honors and AP classes are aphrodisiacs for college admission committees, with the potential to trump even intoxicatingly high standardized test scores and alluring displays of community service or extracurricular interests. Anyone who has undergone the countless information sessions in the college tour circuit knows that universities universally “want to see that you’ve challenged yourself.” However, when the challenges do not even present themselves until late in the game, it can be difficult for humanities students to size up against their scientific counterparts, who were offered more diverse opportunities to apply themselves throughout their high school career.
Of course, I don’t mean to pigeonhole anyone as strictly math or science whizzes with no capacity to appreciate the arts versus humanities hippies who can’t tell a polynomial from a Pythagorean identity. However, time is a limiting factor and decisions have to be made. In part due to the rigor of the typical Harvard-Westlake course load and in part to the pervasive attitude to run faster, stretch our arms farther, push our grade point averages higher, some students will gravitate towards STEM classes while others will excel in humanities. Enticing electives are somberly dropped to make room for that second science AP. This is both the intrinsic beauty and chronic hamartia of the Harvard-Westlake student — eventually, when the deadline for course sign-ups comes around, many will ask themselves not what classes they have to take, but what classes they can afford to take.
But when APs are essentially the only English courses offered consistently in senior year, the student devoting most of his or her time to AP Calculus BC and AP Environmental Science might not be too burdened by taking on AP English Language. This student can now tack on an extra AP to their behemoth of a college app. Conversely, it would be outlandish for the English buff to take on AP Calc BC for a manageable boost to fill out their transcript a bit more. They may be equivalent in aptitude when it comes to their respective passions, but at a cursory glance, the STEM student looks like he or she has taken more advanced classes throughout the years. Meanwhile, the humanities student appears to have cake-walked through high school and is looking at a cushy job as a barista at the local Starbucks.
Sensationalism and clumsy metaphors aside, this obvious disparity raises more questions than answers. Is this imbalance unique to Harvard-Westlake or are high schools and colleges trending away from a varied humanities curriculum? Is the greater quantity and diversity of STEM courses offered a result of the demands of the student body, the offerings of the Harvard-Westlake administration, the acceptance rates of college admissions boards or some other, nebulous factor? These are questions that need to be answered before progress can be made. Yet it seems improvement is still a ways away. Six language classes, two history classes and a multitude of right-brained electives (The Creative Process, Surrealism, Gender Studies and more) were cancelled for the 2014-2015 school year. In comparison, a mere two science classes were cancelled. Oh, the humanities, indeed.