It is that time of the semester again. It feels like this year has finally moved to the starting point when that email from Paul Turenne hits the email inbox: Pick your classes for spring! The demands of the future wake me up to the realization that this year is moving along rapidly.
I’ve followed a formula when picking classes: I try to pick a few in fields of study that might be relevant after I leave Wesleyan, and then throw in a “curveball” class or two to give my brain something else to think about. This semester, my curveball class is out of the Religion Department, a modern biblical overview of the Old Testament, taught by Professor Emily Sigalow. It is a great course, one that is making me aware of the number of similarities between social science and religion. But I digress.
When I think of the humanities departments at Wesleyan, I always return to a classic line from PCU.
“You can major in Gameboy if you know how to bullshit,” the line goes.
Underneath this cynicism is a truth: The classics and philosophy don’t teach knowledge, they explore how to think. It helps develop that place we all go when we are searching for the right word or phrase to round out a paper or solve a difficult math problem, where we close our eyes and try to see the concepts and words forming. And yes, that can include learning how to piece together a plausible argument that is built on bullshit, but that also teaches how to spot it.
It is disheartening to see attendance in the humanities dwindling, especially in the Classics Department, a concern noted by several with whom I have spoken. The most fun paper I have ever written at Wesleyan, so far, is one for a Classical Studies course on the ancient comedies, where I compared one of my favorite books as a kid, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” to the works by Aristophanes. Each semester while I slog through rational choice papers and social theorists, I find myself looking forward to the readings from that curveball class. Furthermore, the amount of times those humanities class readings are directly relevant to a social science class cannot be a coincidence.
I understand why students in the other two academic divisions (STEM and social sciences) might only take the minimum required courses in the humanities. Some students only meet the general education expectations so they can focus on their field, or because they are double (or even triple) majoring and simply don’t have space on their schedule. Perhaps students and parents are buying into the stereotypes about humanities majors and classes, the belief that they do not prepare students for the “real world.”
I do agree that a heavy NSM or SBS course-load is fine for those who want to be good soldiers in their field, but for those who want to be something more, I’ve personally found humanities classes to be the key that unlocks the door.
If one is into finding the truth to questions that seem to have no answers, history seems to be the only source. If one wants to make a mark on the world by advancing theory in an NSM or SBS field, humanities classes will help think past the limits of currently accepted knowledge. At the very least, classical studies can make students more competitive in other fields, and there is ample evidence to support this assertion.
I’ve rarely been able to write an opinion article without relying heavily on a concept or thought that was developed by a humanities course, and I’ve turned to the humanities when I’ve needed assistance. When a portion of Wesleyan revolted after a certain article I wrote, I turned to humanities, specifically the African American Studies Department, to help me understand where I might have erred. Those classes, plus the ones I have taken from the Philosophy and Classics Departments, have led me to a surprising discovery about racism and bigotry more broadly, the subject of a series of articles to come.
I will admit that I came to Wesleyan largely believing in the stereotypes about the humanities, a prejudice about which I am glad to have been proven very wrong. I’ve found that the classics are part of the source code that runs under much of our society, influencing us in ways that are invisible to those who haven’t explored these works. If you are looking for a fourth or fifth class to round out your schedule, I hope you give the humanities a look, especially the departments that I have already mentioned. It will be time well spent.
Bryan Stascavage is a member of the class of 2018. Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.