I was tempted to begin my response to this question by saying that this debate has been raging for some time, but in reality it is a debate which very much belongs exclusively to the 20th and 21st centuries. Throughout much of intellectual history, students and scholars demonstrated an admirable inclination to polymathy which is hard to recreate in an age of academic hyperspecialization and unwieldy disciplinary expansion. If it seemed that someone like Descartes or Newton knew about everything, it bears remembering that the sum total of digestible human knowledge was at that time much smaller. Yet, though many brilliant people throughout history have expressed preferences for particular fields of study, I cannot recall an instance in which they bragged about the difficulty of one branch of study over others as a peculiar form of merit. Yet, for all of that, I cannot remember a time in my own life when students and even professionals did not debate the relative ‘difficulty’ of different modes of study, usually with an eye to justifying their own choice of college major or career. One may in these discussions be inclined to conclude that life is but a latrine, so prevalent are its pissing contests.
In antiquity, philosophers freely traversed a range of topics from mathematics to rhetoric, and saw no conflict in feeling ardent enthusiasm for and dedicating substantial intellectual resources to several wholly disparate modes of study. Many, at least as far back as Gibbon, date the decline of learning in the west to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Yet a more sensitive analysis may suggest that the decline of learning in the west can be attributed to the cultural values of the Romans themselves. Their own hard-headed emphasis on instrumentalized learning left little room for the free-wheeling intellectual play which was more congenial to the Greeks. I teach Latin professionally, and I love Latin literature, but I would be hard pressed to think of much Latin that I actually enjoy reading outside of the standard Golden/Silver age syllabus packers and the literature of the Renaissance. To be sure, Rome’s physical and political dominion in the Mediterranean lasted for centuries, but the period during which Roman intellectual life flourished is embarrassingly small, and even the most ardent enthusiast for Latin literature would have to concede that Rome’s literary fame rests upon a canon far less diverse and protracted through time than that of Greece.
All of this is by way of suggesting that narrowly utilitarian education is excellent only in generating maximal utility, but it is likely to have a stultifying effect on the intellect more generally. The argument about whether STEM disciplines are ‘harder’ than those in the humanities may be taken at face value as a simple attempt to extend the old urinary range, but underlying the claim that STEM fields are harder lurks the implicit claim that STEM fields are more worthy than the humanities. Worse still, the value accorded to STEM fields has a transitive effect: the STEM student, in light of the instrumental value which they are expected to produce for employers, is also more worthy as a citizen than the humanities student. Some people who cannot even draw a convincing stick figure are inclined to dismiss art degrees as idle self-indulgence, as though the artist does not work hard or even suffer inward torment for their craft. The psychic cost of a day at the canvas is surely as great as the psychic cost of a day in the lab. Yet, while the day in the lab may well produce something of value for the boardroom or the Pentagon, the day in front of the canvas is more likely than not to produce something which, in helping us to engage with and question our humanity, tends to be slightly subversive.
One could always find ways to make life harder for oneself. Even if it were possible to rank fields of study by reference to their difficulty, it would be a fundamentally useless exercise. To be sure, physics can be hard – but what about those who study physics and Greek? What if art and music were then added on top of it? One could endlessly add intellectual and creative pursuits to the schedule, and this would make life more difficult, but is there any value in difficulty qua difficulty? Labor saving devices have been developed precisely because humans are, as a rule, averse to imposed difficulties, though they are perfectly willing to take on difficult tasks as a part of the agonistic striving for superiority against their fellows. In this sense, the debate over academic difficulty is just an extension of our darkest desires for power, and the irresistible urge to validate ourselves as defined against others. In the brutal battle to subvert others and proclaim your own superiority, you must hope that you had enough to drink.