Humanities: no more than sum of its parts

The question of “What’s your major?” is stock conversation filler at college, but it seems to be an exchange I’m having more often than usual lately, especially with fellow sophomores. After all, by this time next semester, all of us will have “declared” — evoking an image of a free agent giving a press conference, brand-new cap on head. Actually, “declaring” is nothing more than going to a page on the Student Information Services website, which is relieving but less dramatic. Before that moment, the process of deciding often boils down to the age-old liberal arts conflict between utility and passion: whether it’s worse to “sell out” or to risk living in a box after graduation.

While the “box critique” is often leveled at all departments outside the hard sciences and economics, University policies such as faculty hires have some influence in determining which departments are taken more seriously than others. (As an anthropology major, I am acutely aware of this.) The humanities program, for instance, got a huge boost in credibility last week when the announcement came that it would begin hiring its own faculty in addition to those shared with related departments. The message is that humanities is a legitimate discipline in its own right, but it raises questions about what constitutes a discipline and what the University really wants undergraduates to learn.

So what does a degree in humanities actually mean? The Web site trumpets “an integrated understanding of the Western cultural tradition” — an education, in other words, that is multidisciplinary but not multicultural. This is a break from recent moves by Yale, which has more typically chosen to celebrate its diversity and styled itself as a “global university” with lucrative gifts given to programs such as the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

Like the new humanities policy, this gift allowed the MacMillan Center to hire new professors, but with an important difference. The professors hired by the MacMillan Center receive dual appointments from the center and other departments, ranging from religious studies to economics. In other words, the light in which a professor studies a geographic area is just as important as the area itself.

I worry some about the viability of more “traditional” disciplines in the face of such a program — after all, quite a bit of my own field requires the ability to transcend geography and understand not just particular cultures but also culture itself. But while I’m less than thrilled with the number of anthropology professors whose primary appointments are in area-studies departments, I admire the value of uniting theoretical and applied knowledge to understand another area of the world.

Our own area, on the other hand — or at least our own cultural tradition — seems to be sinking into myopia and abandoning the schools of thought that it spawned itself. In an age of multiculturalism and globalization, it may well be necessary for the humanities program to exist so that great works of Western thought are not forgotten. But if humanities professors are appointed merely for the tradition they study, instead of for the way in which they study that tradition, the object of study is elevated over the skills acquired in mastering a field.

The object of study really is most important in any education where the student receives training for a future profession in the “real world.” Many here, however, cite the same mantra, cliched as it is: a liberal arts education trains you for nothing and prepares you for everything. The way of looking at the world that a particular academic discipline promotes will leave its mark on a student. We joke about it: “You’re such a philosophy major”; “Sorry, I’m thinking like a physics major again.” I have heard no one ridiculed for acting like a humanities major.

The University has a responsibility to us, and to the befuddled sophomores of future years, to structure the education it offers so that we can learn how to think. As long as it organizes departments under questions of “what” instead of questions of “how,” it cannot guarantee that students will receive the full benefit of a liberal arts education.

Dara Lind is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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