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What good is studying the humanities?

My first post for this blog was inspired by New York State officials reporting that less than half of the state’s high school students are graduating prepared for success in college or well-paid careers. I wrote about how this might impact the humanities as a field of study, if kids are taught throughout school to “study for the test” and keep their eyes trained on one goal: becoming competitive in a global economy, i.e., developing practical skills over the kind of critical thinking that goes on in a rigorous humanities curriculum.

Just a week earlier, I was asked by an English professor at the University of Chicago, where I got my master’s degree in 2003, to submit a short testimonial about how the program has impacted my life and my career to be posted on the Committee on Creative Writing’s website. I figured this would be easy, and I set out to dash something off in about 10 minutes. Thirty minutes later, I was still stuck on the first sentence, trying to find the words for what I know to be true: working towards that degree, as well as my self-designed undergraduate degree in literature and art history, was one of the most forma tive and worthwhile things I’ ve e ver done.

But why? I decided to sleep on it, and several days later, I submitted a short paragraph testifying to what I can prove: since graduating from that MA program, I have accomplished a great deal, not all of it within the realm of “humanities.” Despite the irrelevance to my coursework, however, I attribute those accomplishments largely to the example of excellence that I encountered at the U of C, and the rigors demanded by a program that lasts only nine months. My time at Chicago taught me to think long-term about my future and to set goals, regardless of how hard and relatively unrewarding the work towards meeting those goals might feel en route.

Perhaps I would have figured this out anyway, and the university, its professors, and some particularly challenging seminars, were merely coincidental. It doesn’t matter. To succeed at anything, I believe that you need to have encountered excellence in the past. In any form. Otherwise you might not recognize it, let alone know how to achieve it, in the future.

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  • Jeff McMahon February 11, 2011, 9:56 am

    David, this is lovely and encouraging. It reminds me of my gratitude for my own experience and for the students I have known who have gone through the same program. The process reminds me a little of the process for tempering steel, which goes something like this:

    “Tempering is the process of reheating the steel leading to precipitation and spheroidisation of the carbides. The tempering temperature and time are generally controlled to effect the final properties required of the steel. The benefits resulting are the increase in the metal toughness and elongation.”