Monday, August 6, 2012

Of Insecurities and Majoring in the Humanities

I'd love to say that now, seven and a half years after I declared my English major, it all makes sense. That five years and three months after I finished my final research project at 6:30 a.m. on the day that I was scheduled to move out of the dorms, I've found brilliant success, fulfillment, and achievement as a result of choosing to major in the humanities. That immense security in my career choices and my future led me to also get a graduate degree in the same field.

I would be lying. 

The truth of the matter is that I still wake up and wonder what on earth I'm doing. I sit at my family reunion, surrounded by lawyers and law students, doctors and medical students and nurses, and wonder in terror if I'm going to be "that relative", the niece that never held a real job, the stray cousin that shows up and rants about her latest useless research while the rest of the room rolls their eyes, knowing that they are doing the real work of the pragmatic world.

I work in a world of business owners and lawyers and politicians, people who actually produce and shape and change what is going on and I date an engineer who actually builds and moves and fixes things (or something like that). 

And then I agonize in the dark of the night over my final paper, checking for misplaced commas and citation errors and wonder if it's all some distorted joke, some terrible misunderstanding. I wonder if I somehow missed some massive glowing sign on the freeway of life.

And I read this column in Cardus and this commencement speech given to one of the classes of the University of California at Berkely and I'm reminded that at least, if I'm making terrible career choices, I'm in good company.

I remember my freshman literature class, how the professor turned the rambling words, blurry on the page, into stories, stories that were real and alive and meaningful for the biology nerd in the corner and the tense straight-A in the front row and the insecure soccer goalie by the door and the awkward basketball player in the back. 

I remember how somehow he used Homer and Aeschylus and Augustine and Dante to remind us that we were something, something real, something more than hormones and sex and grades and jobs, that our lives were built from more than our failed relationships and our majors and our stupid freshman choices.

Now I open my browser and glance at the morning's headlines and it hits me again. I know them, these stories, the stories of a struggling economy and nervous business owners and successful corporations and failing economic theories and hurting people. 

I have heard before these stories of despair and triumph and fear and courage and loyalty and betrayal. Real life, like college, is ultimately all about stories and the words that make them and the words that make us.

The gunman in that fateful midnight showing of The Dark Knight was playing a role in a bad story, a lie, a tragic plot that claimed he and the people in that theater were something other than eternal beings with innate worth. 

The three men that threw themselves on top of their girlfriends in that same dark theater were part of a timeless heroic tale that claims some things are worth dying for, that the strong have a duty to take care of the weak, that life is not always about simple self-preservation.

The headlines on the main page of any media site tell a story of a battle between corruption and honesty, greed and generosity, truth and deceit. Anyone working in the world of business or politics or technology today is choosing to be an Achilles or a Hector or an Aeneas. (If you don't understand the references, I can only suggest that you drop what you are doing and start your Great Books reading list this minute. Begin with the Iliad and the Aeneid.)

Every day each of us is choosing between ourselves or another, prioritizing our own good or the collective good, our own well-being and comfort or someone else's. 

This is not to say that the solutions to our problems are simple, that we are all just good guys misdirected, that everything will be ok. They aren't. We aren't. It may not be.

But the first step towards solving problems and fixing ourselves and changing our world is understanding. And we cannot understand ourselves and others and our world outside of the larger context of human history. Only the most acute arrogance would claim that we are much different than those who have come before and those who will come after. 

So that is why I, and some of you, have made the strange and irrational decision to major in the humanities, be it history or classics or English or French. It's because you believe these things matter. Emotions and relationships and decisions that saved or destroyed dozens or thousands of lives, no matter what the century, that add up to the massive tidal wave of human civilization matter. 

Today is not simply the by-product of some oozing slime that happened to land us all in this random mess that we call the 21st century.

We are all a part of little stories and all a part of One Big Story and some of us are particularly desperate to understand it, to study it, and then to pass the meaning on to others. That is why late nights of painstaking research and grading papers and commas and citations and piles of books and endless notes in the margins are ok - because we are telling stories and connecting stories and passing stories on and that work matters.

There are going to be days when I wake up and wonder whether my major is useless, whether writing and reading and listening and communicating are all futile and silly. And I will swear off the humanities forever and curse the day I chose something other than pragmatism. 

And then I will step out of my front door and stare into the faces of Hector and Achilles and Helen and Penelope and Odysseus and Telemachus and Aeneas, the faces that fill my workplace and my home and my church and my world. And I will remember that the stories, their stories and our stories, are real and they must be told.


Madeline Adams said...

This is great!

Madeline Adams said...

This is great!

Monica Jacobson said...

I've always thought that the humanities were important, because as humans, we are fairly cliche. We almost all end up the same way, and if you read stories, you can usually tell how situations will end if people continue acting the way they currently are. And, as most of the events in this world are mistakes repeated over and over in our past, theoretically, the study of stories and history should be able to help us keep from making the same mistakes. In theory.

All that aside from words and writing. I wonder what the world would be like if even most people were half-way literate. Most people (myself included) have no idea how to study, or even concentrate on something for an extended period of time. We're all attention deficit, and we're training our kids to it. It's a little alarming. It makes me think of the Roman drainage system that existed, and then that technology (or whatever you want to call it) was lost for centuries. I can imagine a story where we are so attention deficit that we slide back into the dark ages. Nice....

Anyway, thanks for posting!