The Value In Humanities
Over the past four years, I have seen my two homes undergo drastic change. The landscape of the San Francisco that I grew up in has been replaced with the burgeoning tech industry, and with it came the gentrification of the neighborhoods that made up the city’s celebrated and eclectic cultural identity. Across the country, in my home away from home, I have watched our university recalibrate its academic priorities, recruiting more engineers and computer science students, and enticing them with resources I have never seen poured into my own department.
I began my academic career at Tufts as a biology and biotechnology major, passionate about the prospect of developing life changing medication and rehabilitating the world from within a lab. But it was in my English courses, the humanities classes I took during my first year to satisfy my liberal arts requirements, that I was pushed to think differently—to read and to write, but also to interpret, and to question.
In each of my literature classes I was reminded that I could not attack an argument until I understood it, and, in that way, the humanities taught me empathy. I have learned that to read the work of another person, and to truly understand it, requires inhabiting it enough to find compassion. So, at the end of my first year, racked with the internalized shame of being incapable of making it in the “hard” sciences and pursuing a notoriously un-lucrative field of study, I became an English major.
I can remember the first time I read a text with my heart. During my senior year of high school, we studied The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and I saw such beauty in the writing that it almost felt like sadness. Sylvia Plath’s words kept me up at night that year—I was consumed not only by her writing, but also by the fearless voice of a woman who would never know her influence. Her work is raw and impassioned, and in her struggle to find her place as a woman, author, and mother, I began to find my own empowerment. Certain passages still move me, almost five years later:
“I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadows in the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.”
Plath reframed my world. She harnesses a power in her writing that allows her to invite the reader into her vulnerability, and in doing so, she teaches us to access our own. In so many ways, Plath’s writing is about shadows, the abstract darkness created simultaneously and inevitably with light. Her work is tinged with obscurity—it permeates her content, imagery, and language—but through it she is able to access a unique kind of honesty that reverberates throughout her text.
Every few years, I stumble on my copy of The Bell Jar, its dog-ears still intact. It always feels a bit like finding an old journal, and as I re-read my scribbles in the margin, I find myself 16 years old all over again, discovering a language that felt like it was speaking only to me. More than providing me with a narrative I could identify with, her novel gave me the opportunity to see the world through a new lens. Ultimately, the power of reading is that it affords us a space in which we can simultaneously lose and find ourselves.
Despite my devotion to the humanities, I am no stranger to the world of technology that our generation continues to create and embrace. I too am accustomed to the convenience and privilege that it affords us, but the very conversations I have during trips in Ubers are what remind me why I made the choice to study what I do.
I’ve found that across ages, socio-economic brackets, genders, and ethnicities, we seem to be preoccupied, and disheartened, as a people, with the polarization of our country. “How do we move forward? What will become of a country that seems, no matter the issue, utterly divided?”
The response I come back to is always education. Not only must education be accessible to everyone, a task we are still far from achieving, but I believe we must also re-acknowledge the value of specific educations that seem to have fallen off the chart, particularly those that do not focus on technological innovations, or ones that may not be as easy to measure in terms of financial return.
There are no Forbes rankings for universities or fields of study that measure students’ individual and intellectual growth independent of eventual salary or position, but if we want to raise future generations to change the world, we must inspire them to pursue knowledge for reasons other than financial success.
If we are afraid of further polarization, and if we want to come to agreements that are equitable and that satisfy at least the majority of our country, should we not see the value in educations that teach us to think critically and to question, but most importantly, to listen to one another?
In so many ways, my education in the humanities has humbled me. In reading the narratives of others, I have learned a crucial lesson about perspective, and the ways in which we cannot understand the lives of others unless we shed our own egos and allow ourselves the opportunity to do so.
So long as our politics dictate whether we are “American,” what we may do with our bodies, and whom we may love, our beliefs will be personal and intrinsically incompatible. We should not strive for homogeneity in beliefs, but rather the opportunity to learn to find compassion in difference.
In moments of discouragement I turn to literature, because this is our story—our history and our legacy in one. I find solace in the texts that tell me that these questions I have—of identity, of equality, of belonging—are the same questions that we have always asked ourselves, and in looking to literature for answers, I feel that I am not alone.