WSJ Opinion Piece: ‘The Humanities Have Forgotten Their Humanity’

I was all cozy in bed and reading, then I stumbled across this excellent article on Twitter called The Humanities Have Forgotten Their Humanity. This article is so excellent that I immediately leapt up to blog about it so that I wouldn’t forget.

The author, Heather Mac Donald, laments about the dismal state of the way humanities are taught at universities today. As someone not even two years out of university, I agree wholeheartedly.

Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the “Empire,” UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.

In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton or Shakespeare, but the department was determined to expose students, according to the course catalog, to “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.”

My friend B. was an English major at my alma mater. She took only one Shakespeare class and no courses on Chaucer or Milton (if I remember correctly). These courses were offered, just not required. I encouraged her to study Chaucer but she did not.

In my own major, history, there were courses that I deemed stupid and I did my best to avoid those. I graduated after taking mainly 300- and 400-level courses that were actually rigorous.

I’m not going to quote the entire article (because I want you to go read it!) but I’m just going to close with a short selection that speaks for itself.

Compare the humanists’ hunger for learning with the resentment of a Columbia University undergraduate, who had been required by the school’s core curriculum to study Mozart. She happens to be black, but her views are widely shared, to borrow a phrase, “across gender, sexuality, race and class.”

“Why did I have to listen in music humanities to this Mozart?” she groused in a discussion of the curriculum reported by David Denby in “Great Books,” his 1997 account of re-enrolling in Columbia’s core curriculum. “My problem with the core is that it upholds the premises of white supremacy and racism. It’s a racist core. Who is this Mozart, this Haydn, these superior white men? There are no women, no people of color.” These are not the idiosyncratic thoughts of one disgruntled student; they represent the dominant ideology in the humanities today.

Yes, obviously we only study Mozart because he was white, not because he was the one of the single most brilliant composers ever to have lived, a composer who wrote fully mature works as a teenager, a composer who transformed the way piano music was written and played, a composer who wrote one of the most brilliant double concertos in existence.

(I take particular exception to that last bit I quoted, since Mozart is my favorite composer whose brilliance I hope is recognized by everyone.)

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Career Week

It’s career week at my university, so right now is a really miserable time for me. I am in a one-year masters program, and balancing all this career stuff with five (!) classes is rather difficult, annoying, and very near impossible. At this point, I would advise anyone considering a one-year masters degree to just not do it (though I may change my mine if I get an awesome job from attending this program).

Anyway, today was no fun. I had one of my hardest classes late in the day and I had to lug all my stuff to the building where the career fair was held in the heat while wearing a suit. Not fun. So I think I’ve deserved to have the night off. I am not studying at all. I’m just going to write blog entries and my novel and do some reading.

An Observation

After spending an entire weekend doing homework, I have realized something: professors employed to do research, as opposed to those hired solely to teach, are severely lacking in teaching skills. This weekend, I have been working on problem sets full of concepts we simply did not cover in class. It has been extremely frustrating. On the bright side, I know a lot about bond pricing after spending hours researching it. On the downside… I still haven’t finished the bond-related problem in question! (After working on it for several days.)

Another professor made a last-minute change to the syllabus, so our lecture on Wednesday will have material that was originally planned for Friday. I spent a lot of time reading for that class, only to realize now that I have yet more reading to do due to this change.

Frustrated doesn’t begin to describe my feelings right now…

Unsolicited Advice

I survived my first week of fall semester classes. I worked all weekend and I still barely feel like I’m keeping up. I’m a bit ahead in economics (which means I can focus on my other classes’ homework this week) and just keeping pace in everything else.

Anyway, here is my unsolicited advice for you: do not take an accounting class, if you can help it. No offense to any accountants out there, but I find the entire subject to be rather dreadful!

“A Thirst For Knowledge”

I keep forgetting to post about this great conversation I had at lunch last week. I was eating with fellow students in my program: D., T., H., S., and I were all sitting at a table. H. said his friend G. from undergrad wanted to meet us briefly, so G. came over and we talked for a bit. G. is from England and lived there until a couple months ago, when he moved to the US to continue advanced graduate work at the university I’m attending.

After G. had to go, S., who is from Nigeria, remarked that G. made the right decision to come to the United States because there are "more opportunities here" (that’s a direct quote of what she said). When D. and H., both Americans, asked her to elaborate, she launched into an explanation praising our higher education system. Our universities have more money and therefor more resources, she said (G. studies a scientific subject that requires specialized equipment). "Plus, Americans have this incredible thirst for knowledge that is unmatched anywhere else in the world," she continued.

I thought that was such an interesting statement. I like it a lot – partly because I believe it is true. We do an incredible amount of academic research in this country. We have the money (and therefore resources) to do so – but I also think there is something in the American ethos that pervades our research and makes us have this "thirst for knowledge," as my friend S. says.

Anyone out there with experience in American academia and non-American academia have any thoughts on this?

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

People, I survived. On Friday, I took my first finance exam ever and I don’t think I failed, which is always a good thing. I was so exhausted from nonstop finance studying that I took pretty much all of Saturday off.

I’m not terribly apprehensive about fall semester. Yes, I know it will be a lot of work, but I feel like I have a good foundation now. I actually understand some accounting and I know other cool things too, like options pricing.

So, although I hope I don’t have to do anything as intense as this summer class for a while, I am glad I did it and successfully made it through.

Almost Done!

Surprisingly enough, my super-intense summer boot camp is almost over. It’s barely been a week, but it feels like I’ve been doing it much, much longer. I hope I never have to do anything remotely like this again. If you’re wondering, it’s basically been akin to being dumped in choppy ocean water – assuming you’ve never swum before, or even realized that swimming was something people did.

If that’s not bad enough, my future accounting professor sent out a mass email to my class with pre-class reading, telling us that if we don’t do it, taking accounting is going to be like jumping into the second semester of a foreign language class without taking first semester. As a former foreign language major, that metaphor was terrifying – because I remember well how intense second semester of first-year Russian was!

Anyway, enough complaining. I think I am slowly starting to understand everything, so hopefully it will all come together in time for the exam this Friday. Then there’s a weekend, and we start fall semester classes and job recruitment.

The Fake Russian

First, a note: I’m trying this new “post by email” thing in WordPress, as I have been having intermittent problems connecting to my website due to my web host, Time Warner Cable. Time Warner ought to win worst ISP of the year award as far I’m concerned, but I digress. I really hope everything is formatted properly for this post. Apologies if it isn’t – I’m doing this by email on my iPad!

During my seven days of orientation, I observed something amusing as I met my new classmates and professors: as soon as they found out I speak Russian, they automatically assumed I am Russian. The first time it happened, I overheard a classmate say she was born in Moldova. I asked her in Russian if she spoke it and she answered in the affirmative. “You were born there, too?” she asked. I was flattered that she thought I’m Russian, as I assumed that my accent marked me as a non-native speaker. I reluctantly told her that no, I was not born in Russia, I just studied it as an undergraduate.

She was not the only one to assume I’m Russian. A few of the foreign students, mainly from east Asia, asked what it’s like to live there. I told them I’ve traveled there, but never lived there long-term. One was in awe when I told her I learned Russian as a second language. “I think it’s the hardest language in the world,” she said. (I told her I think her native language, Chinese, is much harder!)

Those are just two instances out of many. After a little while, I almost wished I had just told people I’m Russian, or Ukrainian, or Belarusian. (I didn’t because I’d feel funny lying to people who are my friends and future colleagues at work. But still, the temptation was there.)

Last week, while waiting for my mock interview to start, I was hanging out with some of my new friends. Someone asked, yet again, if I’m from Russia. “No, I’m a fake Russian,” I joked. My new friend S. burst out laughing. “That’s funny,” he said when everyone looked at him.

I hadn’t meant to be that funny, but hey, I’m not going to complain if people think I’m hilarious.

Exhaustion

The good news: I am learning so much in my class. (Technically, it’s two classes in one. But, we only get one grade, so as far as I’m concerned, it is one class, end of story.) Just over the past two days, I have learned so much about stocks, bonds, and valuation. It’s crazy (but in a good way).

The bad news: I’m too exhausted to do anything else! I’m not even joking, I had a dream about the time value of money two nights ago. How ridiculous is that?

More good news: the class is over on August 16. Furthermore, both professors have done a good job of explaining things I don’t understand. I went to office hours to talk about bonds today and I think I actually understand the basics of bonds now. I have been asking questions in the afternoon session and so far, have had those questions satisfactorily answered.

As for tomorrow, I have an extra-early networking session thing with an employer tomorrow morning, then class, then I’m FREE for the weekend. (And by free, I mean I’ll be getting ahead in next week’s reading and working on a capital budgeting problem set.) I think my theme tomorrow will be TGIF.

Nostalgia

The history department building at my old university
The history department building at my old university

Something strange happened last night. I was on the internet and somehow came across the PDF version of the annual undergraduate research catalog my undergraduate university publishes. As I skimmed through the abstracts in history and international studies, I was struck with a sudden nostalgia. I missed researching and writing my thesis. I missed reading and writing about Russia and former Soviet countries. I was especially envious of one student whose abstract I read – she wrote about Russian foreign policy with a focus on Kosovo and South Ossetia.*

Don’t get me wrong – I like what I’m studying now. But there’s really nothing like Russian history, politics, and that sort of thing.

*As an aside, based on her abstract, I think she completely misjudged and mis-analyzed (is that even a word?) the two situations. Still, the thesis was on a fascinating topic.