Honest Reflections — The Humanities Side of College

Taken by Bev Sykes, https://www.flickr.com/photos/basykes/6918969/in/photolist-BsLH-BsLz-MDBP8h/; licensed under Creative Commons

I immediately took a 4-unit class called “The Examined Life” in college, and we found out we were allowed to grade ourselves. Had this not been a small class in UHP, I don’t think they would have gotten away with this. I’ve encountered professors who made their classes easy, but there was always some sort of system behind it. By having us create our own syllabi and then having us grade ourselves at the end, the professor was effectively making us the system.

This was an interesting challenge to the traditional education system we had grown accustomed to, but it wasn’t my personal favorite. I much preferred a class I took the next quarter, which had large amounts of required reading, graded discussions, and two fairly difficult essays that made up a huge portion of our grades.

Go figure.

Opening Thoughts

Don’t feel the need to read any of this — I only wanted to show the amount of thoughtful comments my English professors would write. I appreciated these responses even when they disagreed with me.

I had a whole section called “Humanities vs. STEM,” but I took it out. It can be summarized as this: I don’t think there should be such a divide between humanities and STEM, whether in articles or in Facebook arguments. Everyone needs a little bit of both, the same way everyone needs a little bit of writing knowledge to send out formal emails, and economics knowledge to pay taxes.

I talked to two high-level engineers at work, casually, and they made two remarks that I wanted to respond to.

When I was in school, I hated assignments where they asked you about fictional people. I don’t care, they weren’t real!

This is the very essence of literature, and it’s what gives literature an artistic quality. You take components of reality, and you render them in a way that molds reality into more comprehensible shapes. In doing so, you can achieve something that works of journalism cannot.

We should only provide financial aid to people who major in useful things, like science and math.

What do you define as “useful”? This is quickly heading toward a gray area. Some people major in the humanities to create works of art, or to help other people appreciate art, but I must admit that this is a large generalization. Though I personally think that engineering is the most constructive thing a person can do (for example, my company has contributed to the construction of this destructive fighter jet and this Tactical High Energy Laser), I still think that the act of creating art is one of the things our society can benefit from most.

One thing I miss about college is how it facilitated open-ended discussions. We would talk about incredibly broad things, we would narrow down our ideas, and by hearing what other people thought, we would enhance our own thoughts and perceptions.

Literature and Writing

Again, no need to actually read this; I just wanted to emphasize that another English professor took the time to write all of this to me.

If you know me, you have probably discovered that I never shut the hell up about my English minor. Had I double-majored, I don’t think you would ever hear the end of it.

Some people describe English classes as an easy break, and other people try to defend them as being challenging and practical in their own way. Sometimes I feel like both sides in this argument are missing the point. We choose to take classes for practical reasons, but we also choose to take classes that we find interesting.

Sometimes it seemed a little silly to spend all of my time studying practical things, like sorting algorithms (a ridiculously important thing) and Big O Notation (another ridiculously important thing), while simultaneously taking classes that discussed human nature, the meaning of life, and mortality.

The Search for Truth or Whatever

A pretty good response to why 42 is such a famous number.

When the professor of “The Examined Life” asked us what the point of college was, my response was quick: It’s to start the pursuit of truth. Had I heard another person say this, I probably would have made fun of him behind his back.

But humor me…

In response to something I wrote about Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism (the first page of which I have shown above), one of my English professors mentioned Kierkegaard, Camus, and Pascal. These are all famous philosophers who took time to grapple with one crucial question: Why should humans bother doing anything? What is the point, and what is the truth behind existence?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy does a good job of pointing out a flaw in philosophy. If what we’re ultimately seeking is the great “answer,” then what is the question? After we obtain this answer, what do we expect to do with it?

The Part Where I Got a Little Bit Obsessed

A song based entirely on Pynchon’s novel, “The Crying of Lot 49”

When I took my first of two creative writing classes, I reached a point where it was the only thing I really cared about. All of my courses were picking up, but what I really wanted to focus on was that.

My favorite short story was about a young girl who gave birth to monsters. It was amazing, but a lot of people in our workshop didn’t seem to like it. Then someone said that it was probably a metaphor for teen pregnancy, and everyone liked it.

But why did we have to put it through that filter? Even when I was surrounded by humanities people, I felt that we were learning to reduce original art into mere summary. In other words, I thought we were taking literature and analyzing it in a way that was too scientific.

It seems like a strange complaint, but we picked up techniques and then started to apply them to everything. I felt that something was missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.

Then we were given Icehenge, which challenged the idea of closure. Then we were given The Crying of Lot 49, which challenged the idea of…a lot of things.

Closing Thoughts

Wisecrack: A YouTube channel that analyzes literature and discusses philosophy, but in the most non-condescending way possible.

I wish I had a good ending for this post, but I don’t. I feel as confused as ever.

We read a surrealist novel and discussed essays on existentialism, absurdism, and nihilism. We went through the motions of covering different literary genres, as best as we could. I took as many English and writing classes as I wanted, but there wasn’t much coherency to it. I kind of just took what seemed interesting, and then it continued on.

I don’t know if literature and writing are best learned in a classroom, but it may be an ideal environment. I’ve only skimmed the surface of the other humanities departments my college had to offer, but they all had a unique perspective. I don’t feel like I gained a huge amount of wisdom, or that my life got immensely better after taking all of these humanities classes.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? We all have to start somewhere, even if we don’t know exactly where we’re going.

We do it because we love it, and it’s as simple as that.